National Conference Report 2016

Wow just two months being a Liberal Democrat and I have been to conference, met great (and famous) people and even done some canvassing.

Wow just two months being a Liberal Democrat and I have been to conference, met great (and famous) people and even done some canvassing. Conference for me was a great way to really understand what I have signed up to, particularly as never been a party member before although predominately a strong supporter of one (but not the Liberal Democrats!).

Some highlights from Conference for me were:

The debate on UK and European Collaborative Research and ERASMUS. This motion was about calls on the Government to provide a clear and unambiguous commitment to all undergraduates, all academia, all research institutions and all companies involved in innovation. Conference heard that the UK was the highest benefactor of the collaborative research budget with 5.4 out of the 8.8 billion pounds being received by UK led research, ahead of Germany. We had looked to what America had done in the 1990s and like them we had exploited the benefits of international research in pushing back frontiers, by buying into the EU Club. However, with Brexit and the uncertainty with funding this has meant that research was already beginning to suffer. Consortiums take a while to set up and any hint of risk that Brexit would cause problems in the future, EU researchers and contributors would be put off. It was clear that the Government had a complete lack of understanding of the risks.

Passionate speakers spoke about recent problems with bidding and being unsuccessful. EU scientists were concerned about their future whilst working on projects in the UK and a lack of commitment by the Government beyond 2020, when the current EU Research programme finished. It was stated how important research and innovation was to SMEs who were often participants in collaborative projects and benefited from the results. Without this their future was in jeopardy.

Liberal Youth was well represented with speakers providing their own personal concerns about how this will affect theirs and others future prosperity in such a dynamic and international area. We were told how young people thrived in sharing and working across borders which provided freedom of choice and opportunities. This ensured that the brightest could work together on ground breaking projects, which often help local communities. It also broadens minds and provides a sound basis for peace and prosperity. The Government should be widening and embracing this not castrating opportunities that once lost could not be regained. We were also reminded that the general public knew so little about this issue and yet the impact that it would have on everyday lives was huge.

However, Thomas Bull’s speech about his journey with cystic fibrosis brought tears to my eyes. He explained that when he was born it was not expected that he would reach his 18th Birthday. Most suffers died by their 12th birthday and only 50% made it to 18. Yet with the help of drugs funded through EU research not only would he celebrate his 18th he had hopes to celebrate his 40th. But he warned empathically that despite the charge to take back control of the country, with Brexit we have taken back progress by 40 years. We must continue to ensure that Farage and others don’t take away medicines like his, but continue to work together to provide a lifeline for Thomas and others suffering from such debilitating diseases. He received a standing ovation and the motion was passed.

Young people and Grammar schools. This motion concerned the party’s continued opposition to the expansion of Grammar schools. The issue of selection at 11 was widely debated by the speakers. It was explained that the current proposals for grammar schools would perpetuate the issue of elitism which was no longer relevant for the global world. Selective schools destroy choice and such failure at a young age had huge implications for that person’s future success. No child should ever believe or be told that they were a failure. Many of the speakers provided their own experiences of the Grammar school system and how they felt at 11 when told that they had failed the 11+. They hung their heads in shame and also felt guilty for letting their parents down.

Learning is not just about academic knowledge and each individual child learns in a different way and at different times and by shoehorning those at 11 would mean lost opportunities. Every child should be encouraged to do the best that they can and excellent teachers made the difference. Parents with money have advantage over those that don’t in relation to Grammar school places. They are able to provide the necessary support and environment to help their child with the examination system. However, pressure on any child from all backgrounds was not the way forward. And re-introducing the secondary modern system would perpetuate the second class system.

There were also some speakers who spoke in support of Grammar schools. One person explained that their gifted child thrived in such an environment because that child was in a school with similar children and as a result felt that they belonged. However, the motion was passed on a majority.

Dynamic Q&A with Tim Farron (TF):

Q. How can we develop the party and get noticed? A. TF accepted that it was going to be a long road back but he was optimistic that if we built from the grass roots up we could become the official opposition. We need simple and clear messages which we need to communicate and they were: (1) We want a referendum on the Brexit deal with the option to stay in the EU; (2) We have clear policy on fighting for the NHS; and (3) We will be the decent opposition. We don’t think it is wrong to win elections. To do this we need to be clever and punch above our weight. We need to signal that we are the progressive party that is not afraid to take tough decisions. After the coalition we were reluctant to knock on doors but we need to do this more. It is not about what the party can do for you but what you can do for the party.

Q. How can we be more representative of the country? A. TF explained that it was very important to be representative of the country and everyone had a role in considering standing for local council elections. More positive action is needed to move away from the selection of ‘straight white blokes’! We all needed to go out at local level and engage with a wide range of people.

Q. Are we still against Brexit and what is our policy on the second referendum? A. TF emphasized that the UK was better off in the EU. Nick Clegg has produced some excellent papers on the issue of Brexit. But we must not stick our two fingers up at the 52%. The referendum we propose is different to the last one as it is about voting on the actual deal. The Government must be transparent on their proposals and the British people must have the option to vote. It would include two options to remain in the EU or accept the deal. The last referendum did not provide an actual future choice so most people voted with their gut. However TF said that he could not imagine any deal to leave would be better than what we have now. The nature of democracy is that you never give up on what you believe.

Q. What antidote can we give to the 52% who are angry? A. TF explained that we must not demonise or patronise them. He recounted experience as the only Party leader who knew friends who did in fact vote Leave. Anger tended to be in disadvantaged areas where people are not seeing the benefits of globalisation. What we need to do is to make it a success for everyone not just the advantaged few. We need to ensure that sufficient infrastructure is in place to support it.

How do we manage the concerns about immigration coming out of the referendum? A. TF we need to explain how the UK benefits from freedom of movement and the implications for leaving the EU. The Conservatives seem to be heading towards crashing the economy. As a result no one will want to come to the UK. Britain is better than that and we need to show that we are part of a wonderful country.

What are your views on NATO particularly as Corbyn does not want to be part of NATO? A. TF I do not fear Corbyn because he will not win an election but accept that Trump populism is emerging everywhere. NATO is not just important for security but is a statement of our internationalism. Liberals are internationalists and we must stand amongst our friends and neighbours. A strong defence policy is critically important and if we remove one element (i.e. nuclear) we need to have in place others.

What are your views on the by-election in Witney and the focus? A. TF three points: (1) Only the Liberal Democrats will give the UK the right to decide on the Brexit package; (2) You deserve a decent opposition; and (3) The NHS is heading for a crash and we are the only party that is committed to stopping this.

Who in the Tories would you like to defect to the Liberal Democrats? (I sense this was a difficult one for him J). TF there are a lot of liberals both in the Labour and Tory parties and I suspect that such people will defect to us. But my choice would be Barak Obama (lots of cheers for this!).

The Fringe debate on Brexit. There was an incredibly full meeting room for this event with some being turned away. Catherine Bearder MEP introduced and welcomed the panel. Vince Cable (standing in for Nick Clegg) started the debate by saying that we need to identify with the Leave voters who voted for different things. The Government is bitterly divided and cannot make its mind up about what it wants and is heading for rabid anti-European stance. Our party is the only one to fill the middle ground. What happens to the economy is crucial, particularly as because the Bank of England came up with some measures to ease the risks, everyone thinks that we are OK. When considering what we should be arguing for, one political concession that we should make is to give up on unqualified free movement. There has been a genuine impact on some communities with housing shortages, low wages and poor services. But we must preserve the key element of the EU, the single market. We have been told that we cannot have our cake and eat it yet we know that both France and Germany has problems with the four pillars of the EU. Germany wants tighter fiscal control and France takes a more socialist view with focus on financial support for the poor. These do not always balance up.

Guy Verhofstadt MEP was unable to speak, but his replacement explained that the European Parliament (EP) was keen to have a smooth divorce although it was likely that the process would be very difficult. Ideally the EP would like the UK to rethink Brexit through a further referendum which other Member States such as the Irish have done in the past. It is important to know what the UK Government wants in order to plan the timetable. The UK must get their act together.

Charles Grant (Director of Centre for European Reform) explained that he felt very gloomy because of the task ahead. The UK needs to agree a number of deals with the EU. First it needs to negotiate the divorce deal which could take two to three years. Then the free trade agreement which could take between 5 to 7 years because it could be very complicated. Although we are members of the WTO we were not full members. Agreeing the WTO schedules with countries such as Russia and Argentina could mean that we face disagreements and objections. The UK could envisage getting a good deal on Foreign policy and defence but for economic policy it will be a lot more difficult. Some countries are seeing this as advantageous to themselves so they will drive a hard bargain. However, in relation to the single market it is clear that we will not get access without freedom of movement. Loss of the single market will affect our ability to keep companies like Nissan and Airbus, where the UK manufacturers the wings. To make a change we need to build up and explain the benefits of the EU to the 52%. It would be up to the Liberal Democrats to lead the way on this. Vince Cable agreed that it was about winning the public opinion to being in favour of free movement. However, with some restriction i.e. you cannot come to the UK unless you have a job.

There was no surprise that the panel agreed that it was about holding the Government to account and putting as much pressure on them to be clear about their stance. The Liberal Democrats should build on the fact that more people are energised to talk about and be involved in politics and we should use a range of mediums (campaigns, leaflets) to do this and encourage more vocal participation.

Britain in the EU. This related to a motion about the Liberal Democrats continued support of the benefits of EU membership and ensuring that Parliament votes on the terms of negotiation before Article 50 is triggered and commits giving the British people a vote on the terms of the deal with remaining in the EU being an option. Many speakers spoke about their personal grief and concerns about the decision to leave the EU. One speaker spoke of angry white men of politics forcing the British population down a cul de sac with no way out. It was against everything that the Liberal Democrats stood for: openness, tolerance and being united. The issue of peace was also a key theme. Apart from Bosnia in the 1990s, Europe had enjoyed over 70 years of peace. This was achieved through the development of the single market in ensuring that neighbouring states did not go to war over trade and disagreements. Many spoke about the need for clarity on the terms for Brexit and that the use of the royal prerogative to invoke Article 50 was a stretch too far in its original purpose. Concerns were raised about the lies peddled by the Leave campaign which had led to a lot of the public voting for them. That was unsustainable.

The University sector spoke about the risk to freedom of movement and retaining quality staff; who was speaking for those that freely came and were encouraged to work in the UK. They were allowed to vote in local elections but were refused the vote on this key issue.

The Governor General of Gibraltar spoke about how the people there had voted 96% to remain. Gibraltar was a key generator of economic success for Andalucía; 12,000 Spanish workers cross over every day and 25% of the economy for the area was generated by Gibraltar. Without freedom of movement border restrictions would apply and both sides would lose the benefits which had been developed over several years of positive collaboration.

The issue of Scotland and Northern Ireland had been totally disregarded by Government. The UK is at great risk; Scotland was a member of two Unions (UK and EU) and the issue of the land border between Northern Ireland (NI) and the Irish Republic requires us to be part of the Customs union. Peace was secured in NI with the use of the EU Treaties and the help of money from the EU budget. It was stated that it was important that the Liberal Democrats would not accept that democracy was being high-jacked by those who used lies and deceit and were inspired by hate. 37% of the voting population voted which was too few to go ahead with a major constitutional change. It was political vandalism.

Nick Clegg said that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ was a cover up for the paralysis in Government at the moment. There was an argument between two sides of the Tory brain – free trade versus gun boat diplomacy which were mutually incompatible. Now that they were under pressure, they were moving towards a hard Brexit which would cause untold damage to the economy. We were part of the largest borderless market in the World which gave the UK great economic advantages. The Tories can no longer say that they are the party of business.

Ming Campbell asked who would speak for the disenfranchised 16 Million voters who wanted to remain; only the Liberal Democrats were capable and motivated to do so. There were some serious themes emerging with Putin undermining NATO and the UK doing the same for the EU. He emphasised that until the Government was clear on the terms of withdrawal, how can we know whether it is the right one. Voters should be offered the choice to decide.

For me the highlight was the waving of the EU flags when something key was mentioned. It was good to be amongst fellow Liberal Democrats who felt the same pride and belief in the EU. The motion was unanimously carried.

Fringe debate on the Social Market Foundation (SMF). Nick Clegg spoke about the SMF’s Commission on Inequality in Education which he chairs. He explained that education was important to the Liberal Democrats and that there persisted to be an inequality in the education provided to children in the UK. There was a clear link between the social background of the child and their educational achievements. Almost every country in the world knew this, yet we in the UK develop policies that do not help each single child to develop a fulfilling life. If you want to make a difference it takes time and a clear planned and coherent development of policy. Not chopping and changing at the whims of the latest new idea from the politicians. Many children give up and rebel against a system which does not help them. Research shows that there is a relationship between parental engagement and educational achievement and a link between the quality of the teachers and the outcome of the teaching. In Finland it is recognised that teachers need to be well educated and well paid. Pre-school education was key and it has been shown that the educational achievement of the mother was crucial. This was a key policy of the Liberal Democrats in coalition.

The Q&A session focused on the need to consider pre-school and the setting up of childcare centres to provide support for parents. Head teachers were also important and can have an impact on a school's success. But it was unrealistic to hold them responsible; it was too high a stake and led to difficulties in recruitment. Someone made a point about how many people it takes to raise a child: a whole village community through team effort and support. The issue of parenting classes was raised and whether these helped. It was agreed that although a good idea, the very people that needed these were not usually interested. Another member of the audience spoke passionately about her school experience and the importance of food. Without sufficient good quality food, children would not be in a state to learn. It had been proven that the provision of good quality meals for children at lunchtime dramatically increased their academic achievement.

I attended a training session on How to plan your local campaign. I learnt how and where to start planning your local campaign, who to involve and what the key issues were in considering how to engage with local people.

And finally a great chat with Paddy (Lord) Ashdown who agreed with me that the party needs to move away from being the ‘nice party’ to one that has a more visible and stronger stance and not afraid to make difficult decisions, something which TF had emphasised in the conference.

I went away on a high because I felt energised by the buzz and energy (and lots of smiling faces) to do more; and the commitment that we are the only real pro-EU and fiscally conscience party. TF certainly inspired me and I admit to being surprised that he was such a very dynamic and engaging speaker. But not only that, he spoke with honesty and integrity which is very rare in today’s political climate. I have started campaigning in Witney both with the Liberal Democrats but also Vote for Europe. Next stop Kent maybe?

I urge everyone to do their bit, whether recruiting, campaigning for local election or canvassing. If we all put in a small contribution, just imagine what collectively that may do?

*Note this is not an official report back from conference but a personal view only.

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