Tuesday, September 20, 2005


What makes us different

Hello - finally - and my apologies for taking so long to post anything. Like Jen, I'm a newcomer to the world of blogging, but my real excuse for the long silence is the fact that life as chair of the Federal Conference Committee can be a little hectic at conference. My committee - elected democratically by conference reps - is responsible for selecting the agenda for conference (out of the motions that local parties and conference reps submit to us), handling the timetable and the debates and overseeing the work of the Conference Office staff in organising the whole thing (venues, hotels, registration, documents, exhibition, fringe ...). What this means in practice is that we have a awful lot to do at conference, and that everyone blames us for everything that goes wrong. Lib Dems being nice people, however, they often tell us when they think things go well too.

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.

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