I attended the Special Lib Dem conference in Birmingham's NEC today which was called to allow voting reps within the party to vote on the recently negotiated coalition deal with the Conservatives.
The conference was structured around the main motion and also 9 amendments which had been drafted prior to the conference, mostly requiring the party to reaffirm its longer term commitments to certain policies and principles.
There seemed to be a mixed feeling to the event near the start. There were of course a lot of positive vibes. We are now a party of government and rubbing shoulders with ministers is a novel experience for us Lib Dems and the feeling I got was that people liked it! However of course there was sadness. I spotted a number of MPs who lost their seats and also candidates who despite huge efforts had not managed to win theirs. Some of the contributions from the podium referenced this.
All amendments were accepted and the vote at the end was overwhelmingly in favour of the coalition. I only saw a few hands voting against and reports suggest there were only a dozen or so out of the many hundreds of voting reps making sure that the total in favour far surpassed the two-thirds threshold.
Here are a few of the highlights from my perspective:
- Dr Evan Harris got a very warm reception as he moved an amendment clarifying the circumstances of the coalition especially relating to the Labour Party and their unwillingness to participate. He was his usual funny and yet serious self, quipping that the media were not allowed in because he was going to praise the leadership! He got a prolonged round of applause as he left the podium.
- Often it is Vince Cable who gets the best reception of the day at conference (apart from the leader) but today it was Simon Hughes who won this accolade. He delivered an absolutely barnstorming speech in favour of the coalition where he linked his campaigning of almost 30 years as an MP to how our party is now in a position to actually implement our policies. He whipped the crowd up into a frenzy and left the stage to a standing ovation. This contribution actually reminded me a little bit of John Prescott's speech in support of the abolition of Clause 4 to the Labour Party conference in 1994. Prescott's intervention was all the more powerful because it came from someone from the wing of the Labour Party where you would have expected opposition to it. It gave Tony Blair legitimacy in the move he was trying to make. I think Hughes provided a similar service to Clegg today. Hughes is very much from the Social Democratic wing of the Lib Dems and the fact that he was so firmly in favour of the coalition I expect helped convince some waverers in the party. Nick Clegg himself said in his speech that Hughes had given the speech of his life. I think he might well be right.
- Dinti Batstone gave a great speech about equality in representation and expressed real frustration at the smugness of Labour and Conservative people when debating with her about this. As she said: "It's easy to be smug about gender representation when you have loads of safe seats!"
- Tessa Munt, the newly elected MP for Wells was very impressive in my view. She has great stage presence and gave a well thought out speech delivered with a twinkle in her eye. I saw her speak at a fringe event last year and she was very good them too. I expect that she will be one to watch in the future.
- Having a parade of cabinet ministers making speeches was wonderful to see. In fact the only one of the 5 we have who did not appear on stage is David Laws. All the others (Danny Alexander, Vince Cable, Chris Huhne and of course Nick Clegg) did. It was great to see our MPs actually able to say what they will do in office rather than what they would like to do.
- Nick Clegg's speech hit all the right notes for me. There were jokes, e.g. he explained how David Laws' ratings were sky-high at 72% in a recent poll. He paused and then pointed out that it was a poll of Conservative members! He made comments like "The Freedom Bill is now going to come off our leaflets onto the statute books", again underlining how we are in a position to do rather than just say. He closed his speech by stating how humbled he was by the support that the party had given him and pledged that he would not let us down.
Some people I spoke to afterwards said that they now felt more comfortable with the coalition. I don't think anyone I spoke to had been thinking of voting against but from the perspective of someone like myself who was already in favour of the deal, it was good to see that the effect of the day seemed to have been to confirm in the minds of some who were not toally convinced that we are doing the right thing.
Although today's conference was not constitutionally necessary (the MPs and Federal Executive vote last Tuesday was all that was needed as they both passed with 75%) I think it was a very worthwhile thing for the party to do.
It has demonstrated yet again the democratic nature of my party.