All in a day’s Lib Dem conference: hustings, fringes, OMOV and sex work

by Stephen Tall on October 4, 2014

It’s felt like a slow start to conference – I’m habituated to the Friday night rally and meaty policy debates starting at bleary o’clock on Saturday morning. But with the rally moved to Saturday night, conference itself wasn’t opened until this afternoon.

20141004_100527_resizedHowever, that meant there was time this morning for the first official hustings of the Party Presidential contest, with Sal Brinton, Daisy Cooper, Linda Jack and Liz Lynne all present. In fact, there was possibly too much time – 90 minutes in a too-efficiently air-conditioned room at times dragged a little. No fault of the candidates themselves – they were all fluent and thoughtful – but they also all agreed on pretty much everything of substance. All pledged to be the independent voice of the membership and to speak truth unto leadership power.

That’s not to say there aren’t differences, though: there are. Linda freely admits to being the ‘risky’ candidate, Daisy makes a virtue of her youth, Liz her parliamentary experience, and Sal her insider knowledge. And on one issue there was a definite divide: the prospect of all-women short-lists. Both Liz and Sal spoke strongly against them, Linda strongly for them, while Daisy said she was increasingly sympathetic so long as local circumstances were taken into account (eg, a defeated male MP trying to win back his seat).

As our members’ survey this morning indicated, there’s still a lot to play for in this contest. And if you missed today’s event, don’t worry: LDV’s presidential hustings take place on Sunday, 1-2pm (Crowne Plaza, Castle 2), chaired by former party president Baroness (Diana) Maddock.

cf fringePost-hustings and a couple of random catch-ups with friends, I went to chair the lunchtime CentreForum / British Influence fringe meeting, “How to win a European referendum” – and in particular looking at what lessons could be learned from the Scottish experience.

Craig Harrow, convenor of the Scottish Lib Dems and a Better Together board member, shared his view – in particular on the need to identify the undecideds and the importance of endorsements from business people and celebrities. Elections expert Professor John Curtice cautioned that the EU referendum would be a lot tougher to win, not least because it doesn’t have the same emotional resonance – the pro-EU side will have to rely a lot more on practical, ‘instrumental’ arguments (ie, jobs). Professor Helen Wallace of the LSE looked at the experiences of Ireland and the Dutch in their European referenda, and pointed out that the 1975 Yes vote had been on the back of a Prime Minister-backed treaty re-negotiation – there may be parallels. Finally, Danny Alexander noted two reasons the campaign would be tricky – the anti-Westminster/politics mood; the complexities of a cross-party campaign – but said he thought it was eminently winnable: the economic arguments were just too good for Britain to end up saying no.

And then into the conference hall for the debates themselves – I missed the first one, on tackling poverty and discrimination (it was passed: see here for details), but the second one roused healthy passions: “Expanding the democracy of our Party with ‘One Member, One Vote’” which would enable any member (not only conference representatives) to vote at conference and in internal committee elections. It’s been the subject of much internal debate — see here on LDV for a flavour. It included perhaps the sweariest speech I’ve heard from a conference representative, with Twickenham’s Sir David Williams arguing against any delay to OMOV: “don’t give me this crap. It’s about the democracy, stupid” was the mildest sentence. The motion was eventually passed, but amended by Mark Pack and Duncan Brack to first secure a number of constitutional changes to be approved by federal conference. The timetable for the move to OMOV is, therefore, currently unclear.

Only at a Lib Dem conference would a debate on OMOV be followed by one on “Towards Safer Sex Work” — but, then, that quirky truism is the one of which Lib Dem members are perhaps proudest. (It was also true of last year’s fine debate on the risks of online pornography and how best to respond in a liberal way.) Speaker after speaker, with only one exception, took to the stage to argue for a policy approach which treats those engaged in sex work with respect, recognises their personal autonomy, and decriminalises the activities associated with sex work to promote safer conditions and focus police resources on non-consensual sexual activities. The motion was passed unamended and almost unanimously. I can’t imagine anything like that happening at the Tory or Labour conferences.

20141004_171457_resizedAnd with that I’m signing off to attend the rally. Oh, and then there’s the little matter of the LibDemVoice Awards at 10pm. I’ll leave you with the image that greeted me as I left the conference auditorium – somewhere at the foot of that rainbow, y’know, Danny Alexander’s gathering the gold to plug the deficit.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.