Opinion: The Social Liberal Conference was a major success

The SLF conference was a major success. Yes, it was “full” – David Hall-Mathews careful not to refer to the event as “sold out”. Yes, lots of people debated and tweeted like crazy on subjects ranging from NHS reforms to the history of the American fridge. But it wasn’t the numbers or amount of talking we did which was the most important. It was the fact that there is still a groundswell of progressives alive and well in the Liberal Democrats. In fact, since entering government with the Conservative party, and with a recent “win” (yet to see how it will fully play out…) over the NHS reforms, the groundswell is getting stronger day by day.

The conference was well run, apart from having to walk so far for coffee I wished I’d brought my dog and some good boots. The debates were kept to time and well chaired, and lots of people had a say. Despite being full of social liberals, social economists, or – as we were rightly told there was nothing wrong with this – both, there was still a wide-range of opinion. The subjects were varied and current. Vince Cable discussed banking reform and the economy against the mass of text and crazy Powerpoint slides of Ed Randall. Chris Huhne entered a debate with an amazingly clued up Halina Ward and a passionate Lucy Care, on the problems of rising fuel, credit and food prices.

A vital NHS panel with the omnipresent Dr Evan Harris started, to which I was glued to, then had to leave to give an interview with Vince Cable. Evan and Chris Huhne also completed interviews with frank and open bloggers, which shows that even amidst trying to organise a first-time conference, democratic debate with senior party members was still thought of, and agreed to.

Neal Lawson and Mathew Sowemimo from Labour were also present. They pushed the idea that LibDems should be involved with Compass, the apparent progressive Labour equivalent to the SLF. So progressive, in fact, that when the organisation agreed to open its doors to progressives from other parties, several executive members resigned in a huff…I mean, protest.

Neal was generally better received, because Mathew, despite having left the LibDems after over 20 years, seemed to want to still be involved. He muddled through an attempt to defend Ed Milliband and say that he wants Labour to win the next election – hopefully after LibDems helps Compass create Labour policy. The main thing that grated me, was that there was a general feeling in the last debate that we should concede to concentrate on being a party that is just a mathematical balance for future hung parliaments. Also, that we should ensure we talk to the Labour party now, so that a hung parliament in 2015 could mean we just go with Labour because we obviously belong with them. I challenged this view saying I wanted a LibDem government.

I was told I should look at the numbers. Yes – tough times etc etc, however if we aim for high, we might still end up with mediocre. Yet if we aim for mediocre (and Labour best chums) in the first place, we might end up with even lower outcomes. Another audience member made the brilliant point that whilst we of course can talk to other parties, it should be noted that Labour isn’t the first and only choice for many LibDems as an alternative to the Tories.

Simon Hughes shuttled in from Bristol to give 8 “final” points – the most important one being that local and regional parties need to ensure they feed into debate, and the SLF is well placed to do that. He gave a great example that a policy discussed over pizza today, could well end up being legislation now we are in government.

I don’t hide that I’d love more LibDems to join the SLF, however I push harder the idea that Simon Hughes discussed – discuss policy, debate it and make sure the party leaders are heard. We are now in parliament, let’s ensure we have a hand in making parliament and society more liberal.

Lee Dargue is Vice Chair of West Midlands Liberal Democrats.

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  • ben sheperia 20th Jun '11 - 10:24am

    The subject of the EU, and our membership in it, is now being and has been stifled by the Lib-Dems, since just before the last general election. In a true democracy it should be possible to have an open discussion that is NOT influenced by the whip, which is something that was advocated by Nick Clegg recently.
    It would appear to me as an Ex-Lib-Dem, that those that are organising the various discussions, have no wish or stomach to face major issues head on and are afraid of the outcome.
    I originally joined the Lib-Dems because of their stance on the EU and the Lisbon Treaty and now feel totally deceived to such a degree that i feel i cannot trust the party any longer.

  • Jack Holroyde 20th Jun '11 - 11:24am

    Last sentence – did you mean ‘we are now in GOVERNMENT’? We’ve been in parliament for some time ;P

  • Since there were well known members of the cabinet present at the conference, there was clearly a potential security risk. Can you tell us what security arrangements there were at SLF and how much personal information those attending needed to give to the police before they would allow them to register?

  • If aiming high means looking for votes in Chester or Northwich at the expense of those in Southport, it risks losing the seats the LDs hold while boosting LD candidates who are already adrift of both opponents.

    One of the positives of the AV vote loss is that deciding how to block a party winning 40% of first preferences from securing a Commons majority would have been impossible. Under FPTP, however, it is easy to pick seats which are likely (though admittedly not guaranteed, eg Cannock Chase) to have to be won by either Labour or the Tories, otherwise the other side will get a majority.

    Indeed, prior to May 2010 frequent warnings were given on these pages such as these of the power of the Tories should they win eg Thurrock, Stockton Sth, Ipswich, Lancaster, Morecambe, Warrington Sth etc (while similarly guarding against Labour holds/wins in Scarboro, Ribble Sth, Chester, Basildon Sth & Thurrock E).

    Even with only 10% of the vote a third party is more than capable of deciding who wins which marginals, thus blocking any Commons majority and boosting their influence after polling day.

  • ,
    ‘Neal Lawson and Mathew Sowemimo from Labour were also present. They pushed the idea that Lib Dems should be involved with Compass, the apparent progressive Labour equivalent to the SLF. So progressive, in fact, that when the organisation agreed to open its doors to progressives from other parties, several executive members resigned in a huff…I mean, protest.’

    Well done Matthew & Neal – I agree with them in totality! For those who went off in a huff – mores the pity!! For those rather limited and narrow minded folk in Compass – shame on you. I support Compass and believe it must be open to all progressives whether Liberal, Lib Dem ,Green, Labour Plaid or SNP et el. Compass is the sort of progressive group where like minded people on the democratic left can freely discuss issues without narrow (minded) one party politics ruining a free exchange of ideas. Those Compass members who resigned (maybe it was the wrong forum for them?) seem to mean to represent Labour politicians who act like dinosaurs and still live in a world of two party (yawn yawn) limited and fettered politics where free discussion will always be limited and in the end stagnant and pointless.
    I recommend all LibDems to support Compass and freely share, argue and debate as wide a range of controversial ideas as possible. The opportunity of being together in a forum for free and open political exchange on the progressive left might lead to Labour fully embracing the logical democratic acceptance of STV proportional representation to create an all inclusive government of the left after this dreadful coalition disappears into history!

  • Tony Dawson 20th Jun '11 - 7:14pm

    “it is easy to pick seats which are likely (though admittedly not guaranteed, eg Cannock Chase) to have to be won by either Labour or the Tories, otherwise the other side will get a majority.”

    And how, pray, would we then influence the outcome in such seats 9even given the certainty of prediction, which i doubt)

  • Matthew Huntbach 21st Jun '11 - 7:09pm

    Geoffrey Payne

    However it remains to be seen whether a coalition with the Tories will succeed in improving our public services, improving our democracy, reducing the gap between rich and poor, and take effective action to bring a more ecologically sustainable society.

    It won’t. They are Tories and they are against that sort of thing. We are in coalition with them because the people of this country chose to give more votes to them than to anyone else – and then destroyed the main argument that could be used against them “but they did not win a majority” by voting “No” in the AV referendum, when the main case made by the “No” campaign was that this distortion in favour of the party that wins the most votes and against third parties is a good thing.

    Our party SHOULD have been making this clear from the start of the coalition, rather than looking smug because a few had got ministerial positions, and letting the impression get made that the coalition was on some sort of ideological coming together of “economic liberals”. We should have made it very clear that this was NOT the government we wanted, with our distorted down share of the seats we had only a minor influence in it, but as democrats we had to accept what the people voted for.

    Labour’s reaction was entirely predictable, though it reminds me why I am not in the Labour Party. They are happy to let the impression be spread that there was some sort of alternative available to the current coalition and we Liberal Democrats turned it down, when there was not. If there really was an alternative, Labour could offer it now. They don’t because there isn’t. Just to clarify, I don’t mean this in terms of policies, but in terms of what can be done given the balance in Parliament. Labour are happy to sit back as our country gets wrecked by the Tories, because they want a chance to have a distortion in their favour next time, so they can get a chance to wreck it more on their own. Labour don’t want any sort of electoral reform which could allow the growth of new parties to their left – and they were pretty right-wing when they were in power, 1997-2010.

    The current situation COULD have been an opportunity for a great campaign on the left for electoral reform – showing how damaging it is that an extremist party like the Tories can get so much power with so small a share of the vote. A massive “Yes” vote to AV would have undermined this government by showing that the British people do not agree with the distortion that gave us the current balance in Parliament. But Labour threw that opportunity away because they’d rather be losers and see the country wrecked than be forced to share power in future.

  • ‘Also, its possible that giving Labour a LibDem flavour in some policies areas will draw voters away from us to them, where does that then leave us?

    I have been accused at one point of tribalism myself because I want a LibDem government, and for not wanting to do Labour’s work for them (in Compass). If it’s tribalism to want full LibDem policies in goverment, rather than helping Labour back in to potentially offer a few LibDemmy type policies, then give me a Raquel Welch loincloth and a club, and I’ll be tribal!’

    Actually yes good points of course – but any thinking person can see that for the last umpteen years it has been Liberals and LibDems who have been in the forefront of radical and progressive (& libertarian green – lol – change) – I could point to so many policies but actually needn’t. The last authoritarian so called Labour government as most (again) thinking people know reduced our civil liberties, widened the socio-economic divide, led illegal invasion of another country and filled the prisons etc etc etc – so Liberals should be the ones who should be leading the progressive cause and when in discussions with Compass should emphasise that fact – the fact that Labour sadly took a back seat as far a progressive politics are concerned.

    In fact what does really irritate me is (I mean really) is when Labour politicians take the high ground on everything as if they are the sole progressive force in British politics (Sick joke). So yes I am aware of pitfalls in letting Labour take the progressive mantle and we must always be aware of that as they have proved anything but progressive although there are progressive voices in Labour in Compass who we should discuss ideas with that might be part of a genuine Left coalition in the future (no it is unlikely to include any of Labour’s reactionaries – thank goodness).

    One thing I always say to Labour friends when they talk to me (and again take the high ground) about tuition fees (which shouldn’t have risen) is – well who the h..ll introduced them in the first place without it being in their manifesto.

  • I agree with Geoffrey. Yep, I’d prefer a Lib Dem majority but why not cover both bases? A coalition with a Liberalised Labour Party would make a neat plan B and if the worst comes to the worst and Labour take a full majority, wouldn’t we want to them to be as liberal as possible?

    They say Tony Blair was Thatcher’s greatest success. Wouldn’t it be great if we could make Ed ours! 😉

  • “Neal was generally better received, because Mathew, despite having left the LibDems after over 20 years, seemed to want to still be involved.”

    Gotcha. Tribalism rules OK. Whoever is not with us is against us. Choose your gang, and then swear undying hatred to the other gang.

    If SLF and Compass are the less tribal elements on the centre and left, I don’t want to meet the extremists! Northern Ireland would recognise the political atmosphere here.

    Meanwhile, the Tories steam ahead.

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