Tuesday, September 20, 2005
What makes us different
So I've been here since last Friday evening, but have spent a good deal of time ever since in meetings selecting amendments to the motions on the agenda, making last-minute changes to the timings, explaining what's going on to the parliamentary party and the media, and to first-time reps, chairing and aideing debates ... you get the picture.
We've had quite a few organisational problems, but fortunately most of them haven't been visible to the ordinary Lib Dem conference-goer. Debate-wise, I think it's been a good week so far. What Conference Committee aims to do is to select an agenda which provides for high-quality debates on important and topical issues; we want to highlight the party's key policies and campaigning themes - and spokespeople - but also to give conference reps a real chance to have their say over party policy. For the Liberal Democrats, unlike the other two main parties, conference is sovereign in deciding policy.
That means, of course, that occasionally conference can defeat the 'leadership' (which generally means the parliamentary party) and the press will inevitably write this up as divisive, a slap in the face for Charles Kennedy, proof that the grassroots are undisciplined, etc, etc. This is, in general, nonsense. I think it derives from journalists' greater knowledge of the Conservative and Labour Parties, which have a history of organised faction-fighting and systematic attempts by particular groups of MPs and members to destabilise whoever they happened to have as leader at the time.
This kind of internal split simply doesn't exist in the Lib Dems. Conference has voted twice this week to amend or refer back policy motions from MPs - on Monday over the European budget, and today over privatisation of the Post Office. I'm sure some of the less intelligent newspapers will present this as another challenge to Charles' leadership, but it isn't. Conference just thought that the proposals it saw before them were wrong (or, over the Post Office, just too rushed) and had no inhibitions about telling the 'leadership' so - but it doesn't follow that it also thinks that the leadership is doing a bad job. The Lib Dem conference is genuinely self-confident, and long may it remain so.
Enough from me, and I'm off to dinner anyway.