Wednesday, 23 September 2015

On the last lap at Bournemouth conference

I usually slip off before leader's speeches, not being a devotee of the cult of personality. I did stay for Nick Clegg's York 2013 address, having heard the whispers that it was going to be a good one, and was not disappointed by his stirring defence of Liberalism, of the traditions of the United Kingdom and of his place in both. Today is going to be another exception. Memories of previous Tim Farron performances reassure me that this lunchtime's oration will not be boring and will be refreshingly short of politician-speak. In his new rĂ´le as leader, Tim needs to begin the transition from conference favourite to trusted potential prime minister, something for all his qualities Charles Kennedy did not achieve. I don't expect an instant gear-change, but it is going to be interesting to see how he tackles the problem.

There were few dry eyes in the conference centre at the end of the screening of a beautifully-judged tribute to Charles which was shown yesterday. Linda Jack, in the chair for the session, had to intervene to prevent a standing ovation encroaching on some important following party business.

The contentious proposal to allow a "leader's veto" on any party manifesto was not discussed as a motion for "next business" was successful. I would have preferred the proposal to be fully debated and voted on, so that our rejection of such an undemocratic move could be on the record but the right outcome was reached. A set of measures to create an elected office of deputy leader to be created was found to have a drafting flaw and thought by conference, on a narrow majority, to be short of detail. The principle of allowing a deputy to be chosen from outside the restricted (currently by ethnicity and gender) circle of the parliamentary party met with approval by most speakers, though, and we would expect a tighter motion to result from the deliberations of a governance committee.

There was, to close the day, an excellent fringe meeting on Russia's intentions on its western borders. Speakers endorsed the EU's twin-track approach of trade sanctions on Russia while Putin continued his occupation of Crimea and effective domination of Donbas while keeping the diplomatic door open in order to progress other matters of common interest. The subject of the Baltic states came up late in the discussions; the most pressing danger seems to be to Moldova and Georgia. The Polish ambassador likened Putin's playing the Russian ex-pat card to a threat to put a thousand Polish troops on Ealing Broadway! Ian Bond listed several reasons why Putin is not likely to give up his present course of action.

This mix of genuine debate and a sense that all representatives participate in decision-making on the formal agenda, the fringe meetings which still attract some distinguished contributors in spite of our diminished parliamentary presence and the exchange of ideas and experiences with fellow-activists is what makes Liberal Democrat conference such a special time. What we need to do now is to make it possible for more members to share in it.

No comments: