Bold policies, lively debates, controversy, diversity and new members – the highlights of Scottish Liberal Democrat conference

As pre-election conferences go,  the Scottish Liberal Democrats’ gathering in Edinburgh was a strange one. Conferences taking place within weeks of a major national elections can be a bit bland with no hotly contested debates. This one was very different. We had some really controversial subjects up for discussion, with amendments on smacking, fracking and a long motion on diversity to get to grips with, with the leader taking a massive risk on the latter, needing to take 2/3 of the hall with him to pass a constitutional amendment.

Also, pre-election conferences can be little more than a procession of smartly dressed candidates getting as close to the party line as possible. This time they had to share the stage with so many of the new members who have already been such assets to the party. It was so good to walk into the room and see people I didn’t recognise make such brilliant speeches.

Members left the Assembly Rooms last night with more confidence that we were getting things right than I’ve seen in years. We’re under no illusions about the opportunities and threats that polling day in 9 weeks’ time brings, but we are pleased that we are going out there with a set of policies and well-articulated values that resonates with voters’ concerns.

So what were those controversial debates? The second vote of the day passed an amendment which committed us to “lift the moratorium on fracking.” I was annoyed with myself about this because I missed that vote for no good reason. It’s a warning to everyone to be in the hall and never assume that a vote is going to go a certain way. It’s important to recognise that this doesn’t authorise one single use of fracking and it does chime in with our commitment to localism, though. It is also aimed at making sure that we lessened our dependence on Russian gas. It does mean that Willie can’t go as much on the front foot with his personal opposition to fracking which is based on it being carbon based. The vote wasn’t a disaster, but nor was it entirely helpful.

Diversity

Yesterday morning saw a two hour debate on the motion drawn up by Willie’s motion on diversity. There were a number of amendments and requests for separate votes that threatened to rip the heart out of it. The first part of the debate was on the general principles, a constitutional amendment to allow for measures “to accommodate gender balance requirements approved by conference.” I don’t mind admitting that I didn’t sleep much on Friday night, worried that we might not get the 2/3 majority required. It was a big risk for a leader to take. He wasn’t imposing his own ideas – the initiative had been very much driven by members demanding action. Even so, there was a small but vocal minority who were as keen as they had been 20 years ago that this was not the right way to go. Who would win the day?

Fifteen years ago, Jo Swinson famously led the charge to defeat a similar motion at Liberal Democrat conference. She was, she said, sure that training, mentoring, action go encourage women to stand would work.  Nobody could ever accuse her of not enthusiastically throwing herself into doing just that. There are few women who haven’t had Jo’s help, directly or indirectly, in that time. She definitely walked the walk. She acknowledged that it hadn’t worked and she now recognised that further action was needed to challenge the concentration of power in the hands of men in the party.

A procession of speakers agreed with her. They, too, had voted against before but now were in favour. This came in tandem with contributions from brilliantly articulate young women who said that these measures would encourage them to put themselves forward. Party President Sal Brinton, who had been given permission to speak in the debate by the Conference Committee, outlined some of the academic studies which punctured the idea that women elected by All Women Shortlists  somehow had less merit. It was a powerfully persuasive combination and the arguments against looked irrelevant and dated. Having said that, Jenny Dawe, former Edinburgh Council leader,who also led the opposition to similar moves ahead of the first Scottish Parliament elections in 1999, made a rousing speech against at the end of the debate describing each measure in turn as illiberal, undemocratic and wrong.  Fiona Risk from East Dunbartonshire, a long time member making her debut speech to conference, argued that any discrimination was wrong and that the measures were unnecessary.  Those voices were countered by people like new member Charity Pierce who talked about her growing awareness of gender inequality.

The vote was clear with 3/4 members in favour of the constitutional amendment. Then it was on to discuss the main motion. Amendments had been submitted to cut the number of seats affected from five to three and there were requests for separate votes on all of the all women shortlists provisions. None of these changes were made.

Fit for the future

The final debate of Conference endorsed the pre-manifesto which Aberdeenshire East candidate Christine Jardine said she wanted to give to every voter because it was such a powerful description of what Scotland needed. Its main ideas include:

  • a penny on income tax for a £475 million investment into nurseries, colleges, a pupil premium and to reverse the SNP’s education cuts
  • treating drug use as a health, not a criminal issue
  • a zero rate of income tax for those on low and middle incomes, paid for by increasing taxes on the richest
  • parity between mental and physical health and investment in the NHS, more GPs and better primary care
  • an ambitious target for a welfare system that “commands the full confidence of claimants and the organisations and services who support them”
  • investment in renewable energy and a low carbon environment to make sure we meet climate change targets

All in all, it was a good, vibrant, stimulating couple of days. We know that we are facing a massively challenging election, but at least we are doing it with a radical set of policies, a record to be proud of and a leader at the very top of his game.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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12 Comments

  • John Barrett 28th Feb '16 - 12:45pm

    There is now a real prospect of the party returning a very small all male group of MSPs to Holyrood after May’s elections.

    This is a clear step backwards from the present position and will rightly raise questions as to why those supporting the changes, did not want it to apply to the one election where it would be most likely to make a difference. As I have said before in this debate, turkeys do not vote for Christmas.

    Unless support for the party increases dramatically, and soon, we could well have no MPs or MEP elected in Scotland and very few MSPs and the entire diversity debate will be academic, if all it has resulted in are more good women and men fighting and losing elections. We have already had enough experience of that at the last round of Holyrood, Westminster, European and Council elections.

    It does feel like being on board the Titanic while those in charge do not appear to see the scale of the problem and think that internal party debates will somehow restore the level of trust lost and our electoral credibility.

    Policy promises in the pre-manifesto document will mean nothing to the voting public for as long as they continue not to believe a word we say.

    The decision on fracking will not have helped any of our candidates either.

  • paul barker 28th Feb '16 - 3:41pm

    @John Barrett, are you seriously suggesting that we could elect a whole bunch of new candidates 7 weeks before The Election ? Given the constititional changes needed I doubt this could have been done any sooner. Everyone accepts that we will be battered by The SNP juggernaut, its about laying down markers for the future.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 28th Feb '16 - 6:26pm

    The huge mistake was made by the Executive in 2013 to select the regional lists at the end of 2014. I argued against it at the time and I still think it was wrong. We should have done it after the General Election, with the sort of measures that were passed yesterday.

  • @ Caron “The vote wasn’t a disaster, but nor was it entirely helpful.”

    I’m sorry, but I’m afraid the vote was a disaster…. and it was extremely unhelpful and a snub for the Leader. Many people in what’s left of Liberal Democrat support in Scotland will now be giving very serious thought to voting for the Greens in May. The only way to avoid that is for Willie to disown the new policy in the strongest terms,.

    In order to measure how representative the vote was, can we please have the figures ?

  • John Barrett 28th Feb '16 - 8:10pm

    Paul – the changes for the lists for the Scottish Parliament election would not require a “whole bunch of new candidates” just a re-ordering of the existing ones on the lists. This could have happened long before now – had there been the will to do this.

    I think the motion passed will be a disaster for many local parties and will do nothing to improve the number, quality or diversity of those elected, but I thought it worth pointing out that even those who supported the motion did not want to upset the status quo amongst the Lib-Dem MSPs already elected to the Scottish Parliament.

  • John – I suspect that if it had applied to the 2016 elections, then it would have caused most problems in NE Scotland (and the former MSP who topped that list is not the sort of person who would take this while quietly lying down.)

    I’m not too concerned about the fracking vote. After all, there is precedent for the leadership ignoring Conference and going the other way…. 😉

  • John Barrett 29th Feb '16 - 9:46am

    Caron – as you know, I did not support the diversity proposals and honestly do not think they will deliver what its supporters believe it will. I also fear they will have unintendes consequences for many local parties at a time when we should not rule out any able candidate applying for any seat.

    One of us will be proved wrong and only time will tell if it is you or me. We should have a chat in a few years time about this.

    With regards to the lists, I did not think the process should have been overturned, I only point out that it looks like hypocracy to support changes to every election, apart from the one where it would make the most impact. An election where we have the only woman MSP set to lose her seat and where some men supporting the changes are happy to do so, but do not want them to apply to themselves.

    I simply do not believe that if those involved in the process had wanted to make the changes in time for them to have applied to May’s elections that this could not have happened some time ago.

  • John Barrett 29th Feb '16 - 9:47am

    Typo – it should have read “unintended consequences”

  • Judith Littlemore 29th Feb '16 - 8:17pm

    I’m afraid anything less than a complete rejection of fracking is a deal breaker for me. I genuinely thought I was joining a party with the environment at the forefront of its policies. It is the issue of the century for this country.
    Please let’s hear rejection and retraction. What were the vote numbers?

  • @ Judith Littlemore Completely agree. I have already asked for the vote numbers to be announced – but have yet to receive a response. Perhaps you could add your voice to mine. My guess it was a few votes beating a few votes judging by pictures of empty seats in the hall. Willie must disown it as unrepresentative.

    @ Caron. Caron, I hope you’ve picked this up. Please respond.

    This issue is deadly serious, a) because of the issue itself, and b) because we may well not retain any list seats unless Willie deals with it. Patrick Harvie & Co are already campaigning on it.

  • I also understand that the conference voted against Local Income Tax. Does that mean that the Party supports the retention of the Council Tax or did it vote in favour of another’s option such as LVT?

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