There can be several purposes to a political party conference. Most people who are not active party members probably know of the UK political party conferences only as a season when the media features headlines about the policy of a party, as revealed in its conference press statement. But I am troubled about this policy-making by media projection, and prefer to trust that at least some political parties, notably the LibDems, are sincere in attempting to formulate policy from the bottom up, that is with input from those active locally.
How LibDems do it
With the LibDems, there is a federal policy committee (FPC) which is made of MPs, Local Councillors and elected members. They pre-digest possible policy and help set up special groups to formulate proposals. The conference policy committee is separate and it decides which policy motions, and amendments, come before conference. Local Libdem parties can send in motions or amendments in the run-up to the Conference. There is also a slot for one emergency motion sent in during the week preceding conference, although if several are sent in, there is then a vote among conference registrants as to which motion to take.
Even the federal conference committee is open to question. It was the first session on the first day, and 18 questions were submitted about the agenda choices of the conference committee. After that it was the turn of the FPC to be questioned about what is in the pre-manifesto, from a short question such as “What is our manifesto going to say about Europe ?” to a longer one asking how the FPC was using the results of an online consultation and survey of members. There are also the Fringe meetings where different special interest groups can argue for their policies and be questioned. Some special interest groups set up stall in the Exhibition, for example, the Disability group, or this year, the European Movement, where there is opportunity to hand out publicity or argue for a case. So this is the LibDems being very determined that their policy-making must be from the bottom up.
Attendance was high
It helps that there was good attendance this year (some 3000?) after the unexpected cancellation of the autumn conference last year, due to the death of the Queen. It was hybrid too, so that any voting in the main auditorium was both in the hall and online.
The sessions in the side rooms were often packed out. Many attendees are also local LibDem councillors so their speeches at the main debates, or questions, were informed by local issues.
Papers and speakers
In the auditorium, the timetable was either a policy paper (which was then voted upon and is then put in final form on the LIbDem website) or a speech by a LibDem Parliamentarian, or an invited speaker such as an impassioned plea from a Ukrainian politician. In the seminar rooms, there were question and answer sessions, with a panel of speakers, usually including whichever LibDem led that portfolio in the House of Lords, who is usually on the Select committee on that issue. There was training going on to upskill the party activists for keeping their local parties going and preparing for elections. There were also mass events, such as the rally, and the leader’s speech on the last day of conference. In the café’s and eateries there was opportunity for one-to-one interaction.
The very first session I attended was about the new electoral boundaries. When I explained the difficulty of getting in touch with the neighbouring local party, the man sitting next to me happened to belong to that very party… so off we went to coffee, and sorted things out right there !
These we have lost
The first auditorium session I attended was on Industrial Strategy. Notable points made is that we have a Director of Financial services but not of Industrial Strategy. Departments abolished under the Conservatives are International Aid, Combatting climate Change and Industrial Strategy. The National Security Investment Act is belated: the Chinese have already invested £135bn in UK infrastructure via shell companies. We must get closer to Europe (loud claps, especially from those of us who bemoan the clash of dates with the Rejoin March). Adult education budget is slashed. Apprenticeship wages not enough. We should use public procurement to steer investment.
Farmers in a fix
I then attended a fringe meeting by the Countryside Alliance where Tim Farron MP and a former leader of National Farmers Union gave speeches. Farmers are not happy about public services in rural areas. Their income is sinking because of the new subsidy regime. Also the profits of food production are going to the big companies not the farmers. Milk is priced at 32p a litre in the shops but it costs 54p to produce. Some of these arguments were familiar from the Food and Farming policy debate I attended at the Spring conference: most would be taken up into a policy motion later in the Conference.
After a policy paper “A better Start in Life” (early years education and childcare) and further speeches, there was a policy paper on Standards in Public Life. It was pointed out that Rishi Sunak did not appoint an Ethics Adviser for six months, and even then made this answerable to the Prime Minster. The Ethics Adviser should be answerable to Parliament, and the Ministerial Code made into law.
There was a session of questions to the parliamentarians, with questions such as how the new system of votes by Britons abroad for more than 15 years will work or should work. Should the House of Commons have technical groups ? It was pointed out that cross-party expert groups are easier in a parliament elected by proportional representation.
The London money laundry
In the evening there was a fascinating session on the kleptocrats and dirty money being laundered through London. Three journalists gave input from the sharp end of research.
One conclusion is that in the public interest, excessive legal action against journalists needs to be curbed. Rich oligarchs can use the British legal system to silence journalists, as they tried to do with Catherine Belton, author of Putin’s People. It is still all too easy for kleptocrats to hide their money in shell companies and off-shore trusts. Legislation on this is far too slow.
On Sunday – pre-manifesto policy paper and Q&A with Ed
On Sunday, the first motion was about how to make climate change infrastructure accessible to those physically or mentally challenged. Then one about fixing fast fashion. Then in a prominent time-slot mid-morning, the one about transforming the nation’s health. This was followed by a motion about our children’s future, basically against school cuts and to uphold standards, especially with regard to SEND (special educational needs and disabilities) children.
In the afternoon, after a Q and A with Ed Davey, there was a “pre-manifesto policy paper” called “For a Fair Deal”. This is where, in my opinion, there was some misreporting in the media. It was said there was some heckling about a Rejoin EU motion. What I heard was one member attempting to put a simple Rejoin wording into the manifesto via a standing order challenge. This was rejected by the Conference committee (supported by show of hands in the room) on the grounds that there was already in the manifesto a four-stage road-map to Rejoin, consisting of the following actions:
- Mitigate damage done by Brexit
- Seek to join Erasmus +
- Deepen relationship with EU by agreements such as common phyto-sanitary rules
- Once trust is regained, seek to join the Single Market.
This will then be in the final manifesto.
Re-wilding at Knepp
In the evening I went to a Green Libdem session where Isabel Tree gave a presentation about the rewilding at Knepp in Sussex.
Monday – a mélange of motions
On Monday, there was a policy session on Transport choices followed by the motion on Food and Farming. I was especially pleased to be present at this, as I have followed the issues from the earlier Q and A stage at the Spring conference. Other policy motions were “Tackling the Housing Crisis” with much informed input by local councillors. There was an amendment from the Young LibDems to retain the housing target, which was passionately argued and then supported by the vote (correctly reported in the media). Then a motion “Standing with Ukraine”, with a speech by a young Ukrainian politican.
Tuesday – Emergency motion +
On Tuesday, there was the Emergency motion, which was the one about the UK staying in the European court of Human Rights, and then two policy papers, one about Child Maintenance, and the other about Tackling the Nature Crisis (which I have been following through my membership of Green LibDems, and, of course, Kent Wildlife).
In between there was a packed consultative session on the General Election manifesto (as presented in the pre-manifesto earlier in the conference). There were many excellent questions from local activists. The panel, from the federal policy committee, carefully explained that policy-making in the LibDems is like a wedding cake. There is a big bottom tier which consists of values and policies that LibDems always support (check the preamble to the constitution), then there is a smaller second layer which is what is topical, and then a top smallest third layer of what is being selected for the manifesto for a current Election. If something has not made it to the top layer, it does not mean the party has abandoned the issue altogether.
I skipped the leader’s speech as I knew it would be well reported in the media.
Better to be there
In conclusion, I am glad I attended the conference as it gave me a much better understanding of how policy is made. It is not enough to rely only on what is reflected in the media, derived from the press office of the party, and then argued about in social media, sometimes much distorted. Much better to be there, in the midst of the policy-making.
Editor’s note: The conferences of other parties start next week. Kent and Surrey Bylines are looking for volunteers from those parties, preferably local activists in Kent or Surrey, to write up their conference and submit as an article.