Author Archives: Michael Kilpatrick

Michael is an English Council representative for the East of England

China and the Far East in more than one minute

At Spring Conference, I was pleased to be called to speak for just one minute in the debate “Liberal Values in a Dangerous World”. The topic of China and the threat it represents was naturally only one part of Policy Paper 157, and so with the excellent speech by David Chalmers there was not going to be room for an additional three minutes from someone such as myself. I hastily submitted my card halfway through the debate, hoping to make a brief point about Section 2.4 “China and the Far East” of the paper.

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More flexible debates at Conference

Following my earlier article about my thirty-second speech at the recent Autumn Conference, I wanted to share some thoughts on the conduct of our debates. On two occasions now I have submitted Speaker’s Cards offering to speak for either thirty or sixty seconds and I was called on both occasions. However, a member of Federal Conference Committee informed me that other members have done likewise in the past but have then spoken for considerably longer – somewhat an abuse of the Chair’s trust. I have only heard from one other party member who has spoken briefly after volunteering such, so it’s definitely not the norm. On the whole, members speak for three minutes and many of them overrun (I hasten to add that I wouldn’t wish to be unreasonable by criticising nervous first-time speakers for overrunning).

What is so magic about three minutes? Nothing, it’s arbitrary. So why do we have such a rigid structure and why do only a few debates, usually only the longer ones, include the short interjections from the floor microphone? Isn’t that back to front? Surely the shorter debates – some only thirty minutes – would benefit more from more speakers speaking for a shorter time in order to ensure a variety of views?

Why instead don’t we have a system in which Speaker’s Cards for *all* our debates, long or short, allow applicants to offer to speak for either three minutes or, say, ninety seconds and for that individual requested limit then to be enforced by the Chair? Not everything that needs to be said needs to fill three minutes for the sake of it. Conversely long, technical arguments may sometimes be difficult to compress into three minutes. Let’s have more flexibility, please. On the practical issues, I think the loss of time caused by speakers approaching and leaving the podium isn’t a big deal and if it were, more use could be made of the floor microphone for any shorter speeches.

This flexibility of speaking time was the reason for my attempted Reference Back to motion F34 “Standing Order Amendment: Speaker Card Selection” the other week. I was hoping the mini-debate would allow me to suggest more variable speaking times and that FCC might endorse such an idea. In all honesty, I hadn’t prepared this properly, nor submitted a Speaker’s Card. What’s more, F34 had been on the agenda for the cancelled 2022 Autumn Conference and the idea I have just presented here originated back then. I only have myself to blame for doing nothing about this in the interim.

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Why I spoke for 30 seconds at Conference

Party members at Autumn Conference may have noticed my slightly breathless, short interjection towards the end of the debate on the pre-manifesto paper “For a Fair Deal”. I spoke briefly on House of Lords reform after it had been mentioned by earlier speakers. I submitted a Speaker’s Card barely 30 minutes before the end of the debate, saying “I will speak for only thirty seconds”. I had done similar five years ago, speaking for one minute precisely when the Chair at the time, Zoe O’Connell, knew me well enough to gauge that I’d do as promised. It gave me an equally warm feeling to be trusted by Nicholas de Costa, squeezing me in to make my “elevator pitch” as he called it, even though the conference session was overrunning.

There are two facets of this I thought worthy of a write-up, so this is the first of two articles. The second will expand on my surprise that almost all members choose to fill (or overrun!) their allotted three minutes simply because they are given three minutes, and my feeling that our debates, especially the shorter ones, are therefore limited to too few speeches and possibly a lack of variety of opinions. I think we should introduce a more flexible system in all our debates, regardless of length. More on that later.

Firstly, though, please indulge me in my policy geekery. Political reform is of course only a small part of “For a Fair Deal”, and members who are aware of my involvement in “England within a Federal United Kingdom” as passed at Autumn Conference 2021 will know that I immensely pleased with the outcome. So why did I interject for thirty seconds? In a nutshell, when speakers at the podium say “Lib Dem policy is for an elected House of Lords” as happened the other day, this statement is both true and false. Is this some sort of quantum policy? Well, yes it is. We want the House of Lords in our current unitary state to be replaced by a representative body. It is standing party policy. Simultaneously our more recent policy is for a federal United Kingdom; this implies some form of senate as the upper house.

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How not to write Standing Orders?

Having been called to speak in over half of the Lib Dem conferences I have attended since my first in 2015, I can’t complain about missing out at Spring Conference 2023, especially as the one item I submitted a Speaker’s Card for – F7: Selection of policy motions for debate – was resolved satisfactorily and with a clear majority vote. However, I wanted to approach the problems of F7 from a particular angle and to prompt members to consider something when putting their mind to future amendments to the Constitution or Standing Orders.

Posted in Party policy and internal matters | 6 Comments

Conference progress on a Federal UK: levelling up the Liberal Democrat way

As a member of the Policy Working Group chaired by John Shipley, delivering the motion F21 A Framework for England in a Federal UK, I volunteered to write this follow-up to Sunday’s Conference debate. This is my consolation prize for disconnecting my audio and embarrassingly failing to speak in the debate myself – somewhat riling, given my work on regionalism and federalism since 2015.

It seems, however, that I need not have worried about the result from a personal perspective. After a clear, explanatory opening speech by Prue Bray, many contributors spoke in favour of a strong tier of English regions constitutionally equivalent to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as states of a federal UK, providing for a union that would work better in terms of fairness, localism, empowerment, democratic accountability and, importantly, creating constitutional stability between the home nations.

This is not to say that the Working Group’s views were unanimous. We recognised the need to present several options, not just one proposal. We excluded English regions with separate legal jurisdictions, as different from each other as Scotland is from England, as lacking popularity and seen by some as dangerous. The choice was between a single English state or a set of regional states and then a further decision on the nature of an all-England legislature. By a two-thirds majority Conference chose regional federal states and an English legislature separate from the federal structure, formed by regional representatives rather than a directly elected national body.

Accompanying that, Conference endorsed a Union in which at least half of tax revenue would be spent by sub-national bodies, competing with Canada and Germany as two of the most fiscally decentralised countries. We also outlined – not exhaustively – the sort of powers that the federal states should have.

Our answer to the Tories’ “levelling up” is that we have an actual plan: a massive shift in power towards local and regional authorities and a fair distribution of resources across England and the UK as a whole, taking money away from Whitehall and giving more local control over finances.

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Constitutional reform: amending Motion F11 “The Creation of a Federal United Kingdom”

In my earlier two-part article ‘Constitutional reform: a coherent national policy or not?’, I described how I view it as essential that a constitutional reform policy be framed to encompass the constitutional arrangements of all parts of the United Kingdom, lest it otherwise make a mockery of the term ‘federal’. This requires us to answer the English Question.

In discussing English regionalism and federalism on various forums including the Liberal Democrat Federalists group on Facebook, I have observed criticism of Motion F11, our proposed amendment and the party’s overall policy slate, some focusing various aspects such as the lack of detail on the fiscal arrangements within a union of bodies having considerable autonomy, legislative and tax-varying powers. Unfortunately, we seem to be rather good at not putting flesh on the bones of complicated policies: Land Value Tax has been on the back-burner for 100 years, the Universal Basic Income motion up at Autumn Conference faces criticism of its lack of depth, and Local Income Tax came and then vanished in a puff of smoke over twenty years ago. The latter was something I hoped would lead to the diverse political landscape I espoused in part one of my earlier article. With regards to federalism, what did we do with Policy Paper 117 after it was endorsed in 2014? I’m tempted to paraphrase Indiana Jones and say “we might as well have mailed it to the Marx Brothers”.

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Constitutional reform: a coherent national policy or not?  – Part 2

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In 2014 the Liberal Democrats endorsed Policy Paper 117 calling for a federal United Kingdom. It said that having an English Parliament would create a terribly imbalanced federation. It must follow that English Regions would be the constituent parts alongside Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There can be no part-federalised England: if one understands the West Lothian Question, one must appreciate the absurdity of replicating it any number of times and ways within England itself. The remaining alternative is not to propose federalism, in which case the party would have wasted six years, abandoning its aims and objectives.

Unfortunately, Paper 117 was circumspect in proposing the regionalism it implied was necessary. The proposed devolution-on-demand is neither a route to structural coherence nor fair to anyone other than those who are first to grab the powers they want. It is a purely locally-led, “bottom-up” free-for-all which sits at the opposite end of the spectrum to a “top-down” imposed solution. However, it is not a Liberal answer, it is a chaotic libertarian one. Furthermore, devolution is becoming a dirty word, characterised by successive governments creating or abolishing local government structures on a whim. It is therefore time to stop talking about devolution altogether. We need federalism and we therefore need a process to regionalise England – fully and rationally.

Federalism motions (based on English regionalism) were twice submitted to Federal Conference in 2016, to no avail. These followed co-ordinated motions passed by NW England and East of England regional conferences in 2015, decrying chaotic, arbitrary devolution and calling on the party to make progress on a model for a federal UK. Subsequent calls to get Policy Paper 130 to cover regionalism more extensively fell on deaf ears. The meagre 400 words on devolution-on-demand seemed more laissez-faire than the proposals of Paper 117, arguably a backwards step.

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Constitutional reform: a coherent national policy or not?  – Part 1

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I have voted Liberal or Liberal Democrat since my first opportunity in 1987, having seen as a teenager the emergence of the SDP and the Alliance and having understood the need to reform British politics. I then became more and more aware of the many flaws of our anachronistic, dysfunctional and increasingly corruptible political system and I clamoured for a sea-change in our political landscape. It was never “just PR” for me.

In many walks of life it is the structure of our governance that holds the country back – the stultifying straitjacket placed on England by the unitary state and the increasing polarisation of Scottish politics producing division, not progress. I grew to believe that a more diverse political landscape, with power taken wholesale from Westminster and exercised at the lowest practicable level, would foster an evolution and reinvigoration of political attitudes as well as a better distribution of wealth, culture and well-being. This evolution should benefit every corner of the kingdom equally, not be one of increasing constitutional asymmetry, unfair distribution of empowerment and more disengagement by the electorate.

I was shocked when becoming a more engaged party member 25 years later, to find our policies were incomplete and failed to portray us as the torch-bearers for far-reaching constitutional reforms. Six years after a divisive independence referendum in Scotland, we still have no fully-formed vision for a new United Kingdom fit for the 21st Century or to inspire wavering Scottish voters away from separatism. Such ideas – a federal union and all the structural reforms and constitutional guarantees that would accompany it – should have existed before 2014. The national party leaders Cameron, Clegg and Miliband should not have been scrabbling around for votes at the last minute with the great Vow, necessitating further constitutional bodges such as English Votes for English Laws.

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Why I tried to amend devolution policy -and how I was misrepresented

At Autumn Conference I moved an amendment to F8 “Power to People and Communities”. Our amendment, concentrating solely on English regional devolution was opposed not by a rebuttal of its text and my speech but, sadly, by means of mischaracterisation and misrepresentation of what was written and said.

Since attending the Agenda 2020 session at Autumn Conference 2015 and then the East of England Regional Conference (which near-unanimously passed my motion “Fair Devolution for the East of England”) I have proposed additional criteria to the policy of “devolution on demand” – three little words encapsulating a seemingly straightforward and liberal approach but in fact opening a can of worms.

Quoting from my speech: “Civil Servants drawing lines on the map in dark rooms in Whitehall is a dreadful prospect. An entirely locally-led permissive solution, without additional qualification, is equally flawed because it implies self-selective, first-come-first-served devolution. Those first off the blocks will form regions within no framework and with no obligation to consider the ability of other neighboring districts to form viable regions themselves. We can have neither a top-down imposed solution nor an unmanaged, unfettered free-for-all. This is all about process, not about lines on the map. There must be a clear direction and goals: no areas disenfranchised or disadvantaged by the prior actions of others”.

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