Opinion from an activist: What is happening now is just not good enough

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Billy Joel once wrote:

You’re not the only one who’s made mistakes
But they’re the only thing that you can truly call your own

This implies two things. Firstly, that you recognise a mistake when it happens. Secondly, you learn how not to make the same mistake again.

The Liberal Democrat leadership shows little realisation of step one and no recognition that step two might be helpful.

For those of us working hard to persuade the electorate on the doorstep, or through the media, that the LibDems might be their best choice, it is demoralizing to be fighting the Party machine as well as other Parties.

It is important to make mistakes. “The person who never made a mistake, never made anything.” Mistakes are how you learn about life and everything. Mistakes teach you how to make less of them! At present, the Liberal Democrats are not providing their activists or indeed, the wider membership with confidence that they can deal with the consequence of so many recent policy mistakes.

I fear that there are many, like me, who desperately need to hear the sort of debate the Labour Party is going through played out within LibDem circles.

After successive defeats (no, there is nothing encouraging about the result of the 2019 general election), surely we should be changing a few things and some key people.

Without clear evidence that senior figures care about what has happened (three times in succession), how can we motivate local activists to get out and work for a LibDem revival?

What is happening now is just not good enough.

Editor: The quote above is from the song “You’re only human (Second Wind)”, written by Billy Joel and available on the album “Billy Joel – Greatest Hits“. It’s a moving song that deals with teenage depression and suicide. Billy Joel donated all royalties from the song to the (US) National Committee for Youth Suicide Prevention.

* Garth Shephard is Chair of St Austell & Newquay local party.

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  • Graham Jeffs 10th Jan '20 - 3:44pm

    Garth – well said. Being told “oh, but we are so diverse” indicates ‘clutching at straws syndrome’ at its worst. That’s just about the only thing I’ve heard! Do I have faith in common-sense dawning? Sadly not a lot – and I so very much hope that I am wrong.

    We have had over a decade of mismanagement. We prattle on about ‘holding the Tories to account’. Strange that such an approach is not being applied nearer home.

    If these issues are not quickly resolved the damage to the party shall make the GE results look like a walk in the park.

  • Of course we could and should do better. Nothing is quite like the kick in the gut you get from missing out in a target seat. I feet it as much as others. But for the most part, the activists I see demanding better from the party have very little to offer in answer to the questions… how or what?

    I see no evidence of “so many recent policy mistakes”. We vote for them afterall! We got a lot right in the past couple of years. We’re fighting back in local government, our online content rivals the best…largely on a shoestring, and the performace last year in the European elections was fantastic – this isnt’ a story of continuing and terminal faults.

    We’re struggling with the sales pitch, and we’re losing the PR battles, often sadly, with our own members. Some key mistakes were made in the short campaign but it’s not time to start burning the house down.

  • I agree with Martin – the big mistake was acceding to Johnson’s wish to vote for an election. We should not have gone along with the SNP, whose interest it was in to go for an election, because of their very high poll ratings. I do wonder, though, whether in the long term they will not find outcomes suit them! It has been said that our high level decision to support an election was strongly influenced by our result in the Euro elections. This should never have been used as an indicator for results in other elections. The electorate for Euros is always different – normally dominated by racists and euro-obsessives, but this time, given the context, also strongly participated in by strong Remain voters (which led to our good result). Because of the large number of people of all beliefs who were taken in by the “People voted for it, so democracy says it (whatever “it” might be) must be carried out”, we were always going to be beaten badly in an election seen as about getting Brexit done. We should have done all we could to continue propelling Boris down the road he was already on, and NOT allowed him an election giving him an escape route! And we should have not voted for an election until the Poll ratings Leave v Remain had changed decisively (ie when the argument above had been conclusively defeated). While we stayed solid, Labour would have a good reason / excuse for also staying solid.

    I don’t accept Martin’s point about targeting too many seats – while the polls were as they are, we would only have been electable in very small number of extra seats. Judging by what I saw, the quality of our campaign was low, and indicated a return to a Rennard-style leaflet tonnage approach, which when allied with poll ratings, went down like a lead balloon!

    Numbers of target seats, certainly in the SW, was low anyway! I understand that the Euro results were influenced heavily by the targeting of Labour Remainers, which was successful. A similar strategy in the GE would have been unsuccessful, because of the salience to most Labour voters of our position on austerity. We were left with the unlikely strategy of targeting Tory remainers, of whom there are fewer anyway, most of whom were too terrified of a relatively left wing Corbyn to vote or us!

  • This conversation should have been had after the 2015 GE, hell it should have been had after the 2012 local elections. Unfortunately too many people had invested to much selfworth in a disastrous coalition deal and didn’t want to accept they’d fecked up. Even after the disaster of 2015 we still had articles saying look we achieved this or that, conviently ignoring they achieved a Tory majority and the total obliteration of the Lib Dems in local and national government. Accept we have made mistakes in the past and learn when individuals turn up pushing “let’s hunt unicorn voters and unicorn policies” show them the door.

  • Andrew Tampion 10th Jan '20 - 5:22pm

    “On ” there is nothing encouraging about the result of the 2019 general election”, this is not true, the Party is second in many more seats than it was in 2017. ”

    The second in more seats metric is completely meaningless. Consider Cornwell North in which we got 15,919 votes (30.8%). Very creditable. unless you bother to check and discover that the Tories got 30, 671 (59.4%). Cornwall North had a Liberal Democrat MP in 2010 with a 2981 votes. In 9 years we have lost 6,593 votes and the Tories have gained 11,159.

    As David Becket posted on another thread:
    “How do we avoid this happening again?
    A complete clear out, by the March Conference, of all senior figures involved in the Campaign. No ifs, No buts, Out”

  • Matthew Huntbach 10th Jan '20 - 6:08pm

    Andrew Tampion

    Indeed, our core support used to be less wealthy people in places like Cornwall, who wouldn’t want to vote Conservative as the party of the wealthy, but thought that Labour showed little real interest in the particular issues of less wealthy people outside firmly urban places.

    It seems our party has been led by leaders who have been happy to throw away that core support, supposing that it didn’t matter as there were loads of other people who could be attracted.

    I remember Nick Clegg actually giving a talk at the party conference early on in the Coalition which essentially said that there were millions of people who would vote for us if we became more conventional right-wing economic types. The Coalition was always going to damage us, but that made it much worse as it supported the idea that we formed it because we loved it.

    We needed to explain clearly that the Coalition was formed because it was the only stable government possible, and as party which formed just one-sixth of it (thanks to the disproportional representation system) we had only a minor say in what it did.

    Instead of this being done urgently after the Coalition, there seemed to be a belief that all we needed to do was become known as the firmest supporters of the EU, and that would gain us millions of votes. But we did this in a way that kept the impression we’d become a right-wing economic party. That might have gained us a few moderate Conservative votes, but has pushed even further away many who used to be our strongest supporters.

    The biggest problem is that people who feel no-one understands them, and who are unhappy about the way our country has been run, have been tricked into thinking the problem is all down to EU membership. Instead of doing anything to get these people to see they’ve been tricked, we gave the impression we despised them. So in that way we lost many who used to be strong supporters of us – and we actually persuaded them to vote Conservative as the party of Leave.

  • David Allen 10th Jan '20 - 6:50pm

    “I fear that there are many, like me, who desperately need to hear the sort of debate the Labour Party is going through played out within LibDem circles.”

    Hmm. Up to a point. I fear that the typical Labour Party debater is often saying something like this:

    “Despite uncritically endorsing Corbynism for years, I have now morphed into a trenchant critic who can make the devastating reanalysis of Labour’s problems which will enable a massive turn-around and bring us triumphantly back into power (well, in five years, sadly). Because I call my viewpoint trenchant, clear-eyed and unsparing, it follows that what I am about to say must be right, and that it will work. The magic recipe is ( invoke patriotism / listen to Notherners / ignore Brexit and hope it will go away / rebadge socialism using more emollient words / give a woman the job for a change / don’t sit on the fence like Corbyn did / do sit on the fence when it helps to do so / genuinely cost the manifesto next time around / delete according to the taste of whichever brilliant Labour politician is currently speaking )!”

    Labour haven’t turned from denialists into realists overnight, and nor have the Lib Dems.

  • Mr Shephard used an entire post to convince us of the importance of mistakes and his disappointment that the leadership have not identified any which led to the election failure. I am disappointed that he did not identify any mistakes either. Perhaps he had already noted that as one who raises many mistakes I generally get ignored!

    Proceeding with the recent GE was not a mistake. It was inevitable. The country needed a government that could govern. The Parliament was a blocking chamber but otherwise useless. The electorate knew what it wanted but was being frustrated. An election was needed to resolve all of these. The electorate made sure that it had a government with a dominant majority and that the useless rebels were swept out of Parliament. The swamp was well and truly drained.

    It is now up to the other parties to understand where they wen wrong. I have mentioned many time that I don’t think that this party is aware of its mistakes. Recent comments in recent posts have given me cause to withdraw to some degree.

    There are actually deep divides but I sense that the party does not welcome division. and people are holding back. I believe that the most healthy thing for this party is an open argument, constructive, of course. I am a past and potentially a future voter for this party. There is absolutely no circumstance in which I would vote for this party or its current leadership. Change is needed but I see very little appetite for change, or perhaps very little encouragement to raise the subjects where change is needed.

    Party leaders, activists, members and people who comment here need to raise their game. The opportunity for change is now.

  • Richard Underhill 10th Jan '20 - 7:13pm

    Peter 10th Jan ’20 – 6:59pm
    Where do you stand on Anti-Semitism?

  • Chris Leeds 10th Jan '20 - 7:39pm

    We really need an honest assessment of what went right (a few things) and what went wrong (most things). That requires a debate we don’t seem to be having.

    It seems to me the two primary mistakes were agreeing to a GE and the Revoke stance. I live in the glass house of having supported both at the time. I was wrong, the leadership was wrong and most of the membership were wrong. We shouldn’t be pillorying people for getting it wrong, but we should be debating why we did.

    It’s an instinct, maybe even a displacement activity, to just go out campaigning again. Speaking personally, I don’t feel comfortable doing that until I’ve been part of a thorough and honest debate about what went wrong, what we should learn, what role we see for the party and whether it’s achievable.

  • “On ” there is nothing encouraging about the result of the 2019 general election”, this is not true, the Party is second in many more seats than it was in 2017.”

    How many of those were seats where the LDs were third in 2017 and UKIP 2nd and no Brexit party in 2019? You can’t do a straight read-across from 2017.

  • Paul Barker 10th Jan '20 - 8:27pm

    All this would be understandable if we were The Labour Party (or The Tories) but we Elect our Leadership. We Elected Jo Swinson & we are soon to Elect her replacement. We Elect all those Commitees & Conference makes Policy.
    Do We not bear any responsibility for what happens ?
    The overwhelming reason for the downside of Our recent performance is The Coalition, its just too soon for us to make a full Recovery.
    The sooner we all stop blaming each other & accept our own part in the mistakes that have been made, the sooner we can get on with fighting The Local Elections & uniting around Our new Leader, whoever that is.

  • There is plenty of self-scrutiny to be done but that does not mean avoiding campaigning. However badly the Liberal Democrats handled the General Election campaign the Preamble to the Constitution is still there! Theoretically those who do not have elections in May may be able to take a break from the streets while soul searching, but those of us who do have local elections have to face the fact that they come with a shorter interval since a bad General Election than most of us have ever known.

  • Peter Sinclair 10th Jan '20 - 9:27pm

    @Richard Underhill – What an odd question! I would never have expected that.

    I don’t think about it all and to be honest, I have never fully understood why it seems to be a recurring issue throughout history. But you asked me the direct question and my answer is that it is racism and there is no place for racism.

    I have no reason to have any negative thoughts about the Jewish community and feel sorry that they find living here to be a threatening experience. I don’t really understand why there is a problem in this day and age.

    I have some criticism of Netanyahu because he has always been a hardliner who seems to have no interest in negotiating a peaceful relationship with the Palestinians, but there are hotheads on that side too, who provoke Israel then the community receives severe punishment. But that is a political issue about foreign policy.

    Why do you ask about where I stand on Anti-Semitism?

  • Brian Ellis 10th Jan '20 - 9:29pm

    All of us make mistakes Leaders are human beings and have the same flaws as the rest of us.
    Jo Grimond made mistakes he called for us to march towards the sound of gun fire, but he also commented in the very dark days that we needed a smack of firm government. We have a rotten government, which lacks those basic principals of Liberalism, which David Steel, again in the dark days highlighted in his call for,” a more compassionate, a more open , a more tolerant society”. But some would say it was a mistake to enter into the lib/lab pact. Nick Clegg led us into a coalition with the Tories, do we remember the rose garden. Some would say that was a mistake, entered into in haste.
    Just three examples, but to simply attack the party leader at any given time is not a liberal or tolerant approach sadly however it is a pastime Liberal Democrats seem to indulge in. Jo Grimond, Jeremy Thorpe, David Steel, Paddy Ashdown, Charles Kennedy,
    Ming Campbell, Nick Clegg, Tim Farron, Vince Cable and Jo Swinson, have all led as human beings with there own strengths and weakness, they have all served the party to best of there abilities, yes they made mistakes but in the main they held to those values which I referred to above if there is any doubt about that just read again Jo Swinsons resignation speech. Values are important if not vital in our political life, we should seek to practice them as well as preach them. How we conduct the debate about the direction of the party and what went right or wrong in the most recent election. If we want and believe in that Compassionate, Open, and tolerant society, we must treat each other accordingly and that includes those who hold positions of leadership. I have known worse General Election results than 2019, the building of our party is and has always been best when it has been done from the grassroots, we would do well to remember that as we move forward into the new decade it was a lesson well taught by the likes of the late David Penhaligon.

  • I am not sure what specific action the party should now take, but would like to suggest a general direction. A rather obvious one in many ways. The current government is committed to some kind of hyperactive capitalism (the details are not at all clear to me). Historically this has meant ramping up use of energy and getting as much as possible out of the natural resources around (including people). It seems to me that this is on a collision course with any rational response to the climate emergency which requires being more gentle with the world and life on it. Given the objective nature of climate change and species loss, as opposed to the opinion based foundations of hyperactive capitalism, it seems clear to me which must win out. Surely we should begin by placing ourselves firmly on the side of defending the planet and proceed from there.

  • The revoke policy was a mistake. My perception was Jo bounced conference into voting for it by announcing it on national TV before the debate had taken place, and in the conference hall the vote was still very close – I was sitting in the balcony and I wish I had shouted for a card count (not that I know which way that would have gone). 2 reasons: 1. it encouraged a “illiberal undemocrats” meme and 2. having suggested that a seat majority in the HoC would have justified cancelling Brexit now leaves us unable to argue for a final say referendum on the basis that the Tories only got 44% of the votes and all the pro-brexit parties put together only got 46.5%. The people voted for another referendum, but we said a majority in the HoC should be decisive (and we’re supposed to be anti-FPTP) – what an own goal!

    Fighting with Labour and the SNP was a mistake. The only enemy in this election was the Tories. The lack of a pact with Labour and the SNP has been blamed on them, but that is a mistake – they should carry a share of the responsibility, but we could have made more effort too, starting a long time before we issued the final invitation to them.

    I lean towards thinking the GE was unavoidable, and I don’t think the fact we triggered it cost us many votes compared to: fighting too many seats, fighting too many opponents, the revoke policy, the coalition, our ambivalence towards tactical voting and the general problem of identifying and countering lies on social media. I imagine most of us can think of several things to do about most of that list – except the last item. What do we do about that? (I mean this question specifically in terms of what tactics should we employ – what policy to implement if we ever get any power is also valid but less urgent).

  • Reading these comments I realise that the Lib Dems will take a generation to reach even 20 MPs. You lot just don’t get it. You are on the wrong side of history.

    You are the new reactionary class the conservatives are the radicals.

  • James is kind of right when he says that “the conservatives are the radicals” now. But Dominic Cummings seems to me to be more of an anarchist than a radical, and if Johnson continues to listen to his ideas his government will end up implementing inconsistent and incoherent policies.

    As Liberal Democrats we do need to go back to our roots, and we have to rebuild our public appeal on the values set out in the Preamble to our Constitution. We exist to those who are disadvantaged in our society, and in the world, a chance to fulfil their potential;
    to spread power as widely as possible; to proclaim co-operative and internationalist values; to put the need for policies that will sustain life on this planet at the centre of politics. Stop Brexit, while right, was a conservative policy: our values are not.

  • John Marriott 11th Jan '20 - 10:05am

    It was Lady Thatcher, I believe, who said something like “There is no such thing as society, only people and families”. You know, she had a point there. If you just believe in looking after Number One, then clearly the Tories are for you. That’s probably why, despite the talk of pluralism in our modern politics, they still regularly poll over 40% in General Elections, which, distorted by FPTP, keeps regularly handing them the keys to No 10.

    If you still want to look after Number One; but not at the expense of Numbers Two, Three etc., then the choice before you may be considered rather confusing. If you are a socialist, and I would add environmentalists like George Monbiot and politicians like the fragrant Ms Lucas to that list, you reckon that you have the answers. It’s the others, who need telling where they are going wrong. If you are a member of that small band of well meaning and worthy citizens known affectionately as ‘Liberals’, you think you know what you want and just hope that, if you stuff enough FOCUS leaflets through their doors, a few more of your fellow citizens may come round to thinking like you – one day. If you have any doubts, you can always go to one of the regular party conferences to have those doubts massaged away in the warm glow of mutual certainty.

    The problem with many ‘liberals’, and I still include myself in that category – just – is that not so many of us have actually had the opportunity to practise what we preach, by not only getting elected to office however small but actually then getting re elected regularly. More out of luck and sheer cussedness I managed to do it, albeit at local level, by trying to sort out problems that had nothing to do with liberalism, socialism or even conservatism but rather more to do common sense. My mantra, and one I wish the Lib Dems might consider adopting was, when faced with a problem, to argue “It doesn’t have to be like this”. Yes, during my thirty years on various councils I voted with Tories and Labour, if I thought that what they were proposing made sense. Does that make me a bad person?

    ‘Liberals’ have got to be realistic about what they can actually achieve on their own. It was Napoleon who said that an army moves at the speed of the slowest soldier. Think about it!

  • Wilf Forrow 11th Jan '20 - 6:13pm

    Until we get voting reform, we can’t go into elections rejecting just about every practical coalition.
    We are the minor party. Our only point is to gain the balance of power, as the DUP did for a short while.
    We have to create a new vision of ‘coalition’ which doesn’t crucify us, which lets us take on selective parts of government, without being blamed for everything bad, and bound by total cabinet responsibility.

  • Katharine Pindar 11th Jan '20 - 8:54pm

    Peter Brand is right, in my opinion: the Revoke policy was wrong – actually against our principles. The motion that proposed it should have had those lines in the Stop Brexit motion (lines 39 to 41) highlighted, and debated separately because they were the only contentious lines in it. I must blame the Conference leaders for not ensuring that that was done, so that members could fully consider the implications of what they were voting for.

    We should not blindly follow any new leader’s whim. Jo was very new, and over-confident, a failing which she has paid for. But again, she was failed by the campaign leadership, which should for instance never have allowed a leaflet to be produced (as early as October) with a picture of Jo and the caption ‘JO SWINSON Britain’s next Prime Minister’, without so much as a question-mark at the end. This was folly, and it was kept up. Our reputation for consistent and sensible policy, in line with our belief in democracy, supporting another referendum for the people because the facts of Brexit are now more fully known, all were shaken. Well may the author of this piece, significantly from one of the West Country seats our party has let down, write that ‘This is just not good enough.’ The serious mistakes need acknowledging at the York Conference by the leaders concerned, and lessons learnt admitted.

  • John Marriott 11th Jan ’20 – 10:05am:
    It was Lady Thatcher, I believe, who said something like “There is no such thing as society, only people and families”. You know, she had a point there.

    To understand her point it is necessary to read the quotation in context.

    ‘There is no such thing as society’:

    A comment from a Woman’s Own interview in 1987 is often repeated, but rarely in context: ”There is no such thing as society”. Its relevance was made explicit with the publication of the second volume of Margaret Thatcher’s autobiography in 1993:

    “they never quoted the rest. I went on to say: There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then to look after our neighbour. My meaning, clear at the time but subsequently distorted beyond recognition, was that society was not an abstraction, separate from the men and women who composed it, but a living structure of individuals, families, neighbours and voluntary associations.“

    ‘Interview for Woman’s Own (“no such thing as society”)’:

    …they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour…

    There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.

    “No such thing as society”?

    Ipsos MORI tested two versions of Margaret Thatcher’s famous “no such thing as society” interview, each with representative samples of the population – one with just that simple statement, and one with a much longer excerpt from the interview. And there is a dramatic difference in results.

  • The Thatcher comment was made to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in Edinburgh. It went down like a lead balloon and was part of the slippery slope leading to her defenestration.

  • Katharine Pindar 12th Jan '20 - 12:13am

    Regarding Geoff Payne’s comment above, it is notable that nobody is coming forward to admit voting for the Revoke policy, let alone admitting proposing it. Geoff is chair of the Federal Conference Committee, but will not reveal on Facebook who were the Conference leaders who decided the Stop Brexit motion which included the new policy should be put forward, and declined to give the contentious bit of it – only three lines – special prominence either in the typed motion or in the amount of time given to that section in the debate.

    I don’t want a Witch hunt, we are all responsible, but I do want to know who was involved. Otherwise the call of various members here on LDV, such as David Becket, asking for the leaders involved to admit their mistakes and move on, can possibly be ignored at the Spring Conference in York. And to my mind the decision of the party leaders to press for the early election is much more defensible than the decision on the Revoke policy and the subsequent hubris in promoting Jo’s claims.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 12th Jan '20 - 9:04am

    Katharine, there does seem to be a certain mystery about how a policy like this emerges. We are told that “members make policy”, but the reality often seems rather different. It is actually very unusual for a policy to be voted down by conference, if it is perceived as being supported by the leadership. We need to ask why Jo Swinson and others had begun to speak about “revoke” as if it was already party policy, before Conference had had a chance to vote. I don’t think Jo Swinson alone would have been responsible for this, as you seem to suggest in your earlier comment. It would have been decided by a group of advisers and strategists, but its true that it could not have happened if Jo Swinson had not agreed to it. Presumably it was thought (mistakenly) that the policy would be popular with Remainers.
    Regarding your suggestion that the lines of the motion which were specifically about “revoke”, should have been debated separately – I’m very far from being an expert on how Conference motions work, but I believe it is possible for members to make a request for certain lines of a motion to be voted on separately. It is certainly possible to propose an amendment to remove or change certain words, and such an amendment would be voted on. It sounds as if no such request for a separate vote, or amendment, was made.

  • Katharine Pindar 12th Jan '20 - 7:31pm

    Astute comments, Catherine. Why indeed was ‘Revoke’ being spoken about as if it were already party policy, before the Conference debate happened? Who were the ‘advisers and strategists’ pushing this policy, and were they the same as the ’11 members’ who the day’s order paper says proposed the new motion? Yes, I suppose some intervention might have been possible to draw special attention to the three vital lines. Ordinary members like me were probably too busy digesting the new motion, and trusting that as it was proposed by Tom Brake MP and to be summated by Caroline Voaden MEP, we could rely on them and the Chair of the debate (whose name I do not recall) to ensure that a full and searching debate would be held.

    Ordinary members like myself put forward Speakers cards, but were not called, understandably, since notables like Simon Hughes and Andrew George were enabled to speak against the new policy. But there was some confusion in the hall since the party’s existing policy of ‘Revoke’ as a last resort was also mentioned in the motion, and the Chair was slow to make clear who was speaking specifically on the proposed new policy. (I heard cries of ‘Which?’ at the time.) Although there was finally a separate vote on the three lines stating the new policy, to my mind as I have written already the debate on it had been insufficient.

    So, disappointed at the end, my private conclusion was that the Conference leaders must have deferred to the new leader’s strong wish for the policy and therefore arranged for it to be presented in the way that it was. I would have preferred them to take a leaf out of Mr Corbyn’s book and stayed strictly neutral about that vital debate.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 13th Jan '20 - 9:13am

    Katharine, there does seem to be a need for much greater transparency about how motions are selected.
    Also there is a need for members to scrutinise new policies carefully. There has been far to much of a tendency for Conference to accept a policy if the leadership is perceived to support it.

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