Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Saturday, 3 September 2011

This Lib Dem conference vetting farce cannot happen again #ldconf

Cast your mind back to October 2007. A fresh faced recently elected MP is running for the leadership of his party. One of the most eye-catching and in some ways audacious comments that the MP made was on ID cards which he was clearly completely opposed to:

“If the legislation is passed I will lead a grassroots campaign of civil disobedience to thwart the identity cards programme … I, and I expect thousands of people like me, will simply refuse ever to register.”

The MP was Nick Clegg and as we know not long afterwards he was elected leader of the Lib Dems. And now he is Deputy Prime Minister leading a party of 57 MPs as part of a coalition government.

The party's federal conference in Birmingham is due to start in a couple of weeks time. And in a new twist, delegates registering to attend have to submit themselves to a police check.

The noises from the top of the party are very much in the vein of "that is the price we have to pay for being a governing party". I have read that without such checks the party would not have been able to get insurance for the venue. I have also read various comments of the ilk that because we have cabinet and junior government ministers wandering around conference we need to have more stringent security than we had previously.

Regarding the insurance comments I am afraid I am going to call BS on that one. I cannot believe that it is not possible to find insurance that will cover such an event without intrusive police checks on every single attendee.

Regarding the comments about ministers being in attendance, I know for a fact that at other events such as Nick Clegg visiting Newbury recently there were no such checks needed. You only needed to bring your party membership number. So why on earth is police vetting required for federal conference all of a sudden?

There is something deeply unsettling about the party that I joined over 3 years ago precisely because it stood for such strong liberal values such as being completely against ID cards acquiescing so easily to police vetting checks for its members and democratically elected conference representatives.

I really do not see why they are necessary. As Caron rightly points out there is already airport style security and scanners at the entrances to the conference venue. Surely that should be sufficient to ensure protection?

I have heard stories of people having their clearance rejected for various reasons. In some cases it is clear, in others not so much. Gareth Epps for example, a 3 time PPC and former councillor from Reading appears to have been rejected because of a problem with his photograph. I really wonder what danger Gareth will be deemed to pose if his picture is slightly indistinct. I guess the problem lies in the possibility that someone who is not Gareth but looks like him attempts to gain access to the conference. But even if that bizarre scenario was to occur, like I say there is ample security at the venue to prevent weapons etc. from getting in.

Perhaps even more fundamentally, should it be up to the police to decide who does or does not get to attend the main conference of a democratic party? Not to mention the fact that some people (e.g. transgendered) may not wish to submit themselves to a clunky process that may reveal information about themselves that they wished to keep private.

But aside from the principled objections I have there is a practical objection to the way this whole thing has been administered. Lots of Lib Dems have been commenting and tweeting that they have still not had the clearance they need to attend. With two weeks to go this is completely unacceptable. Hotel rooms get booked up in conference season and prices for booking at the last minute can be twice as much (or more) as if you are to book longer in advance. Train tickets are much cheaper in advance too and can be prohibitively expensive so close to the date of travel. I expect there will be people who wanted to attend and will ultimately be cleared to do so but will not be able to because of cost considerations. Not to mention those who take a chance, pay for the train ticket or the non-refundable hotel room only to find they cannot attend after all and have completely wasted their money. And bosses are sometimes not sympathetic towards people who book time off and then need to change their plans at the last minute etc. etc. etc.

None of this is liberal or democratic. I cannot believe that the Nick Clegg of 2007 would have been happy with any of this and I very much hope he is not happy now.

The upper echelons of the party need to reflect long and hard on the problems their attempts to adhere to more stringent security have caused. There are lots of activists who are pretty disgusted with it frankly, myself included.

There is a motion proposed by Stephen Gilbert MP at 9am on the Sunday morning of conference which will hopefully go some way towards redressing this woeful situation for the future. If you are attending conference I urge you to attend and make your voice heard and to vote for it if you have voting rights.

I can only hope that good sense eventually prevails and this sort of farce never happens again.

1 comment:

Greg Smyth said...

Vince Cable and Christ Huhne attended the Social Liberal Forum meeting in London a couple of months back and there was no need for vetting (or even any pretence at security once you got past the lone security guard chatting in front of the venue).