Simon Says – So what did our Deputy Leader make of Conference?

Simon Hughes has been walking an oil sodden, slippery, wobbly tightrope since he took on the role of Deputy Leader. I have to say I have been impressed at the way he has managed to rattle equally the right and left wing press while managing the balancing act with aplomb! It is a frighteningly difficult task and one that is crucial to get right. I may not always agree with him but I am hugely grateful and reassured by his being there. I think one of his undoubted attributes is to be able to listen and take back concerns, whether within or without the party. On Wednesday he spoke young people at a local FE college – his openness about his views on drugs policy, his offer to come back and go out and see what life is really like at night on the streets of Anfield and his promise to take back all their concerns left a huge impression. So, my questions for Simon were:

Q: Leaving conference how do you feel it went?

A: I’m clear the conference went well, it was historic, the first time in government – and I hadn’t realised this, but the first in government in peacetime since 1922! It was our largest conference in terms of attendance, the first time ever with a leader in government, let alone deputy prime minister and then going off to represent us at the UN, and the first time in a fantastic conference venue in Liverpool; I think it worked like a treat. In terms of the politics, I think that it was a successful conference, we acquitted ourselves well, we looked as if we were responsible and competent and capable in government and to use a phrase I heard during the week, it was a ‘serious conference for serious times’.

Q: How did you feel about Nick’s performance and the delegates’ response?

I think that the concept of speaking at the rally, then doing a more relaxed and informal Q and A session and then a speech at the end is a good one. It gives the leader three bites of the cherry, but above all to set scene at the beginning, which is what you can do at the rally, then the Q and A which is a bit more interactive (which I notice you took full opportunity to participate in and asked a very good question if I may say so and it worked very well), and then the speech. In all of those Nick acquitted himself well, in different circumstances, and in some ways at his best in the Q and A session, the informal dialogue. The speech was very single minded in its argument, in that it was clearly a speech seeking to persuade our people and the wider public why we went into coalition and what we were going to do with it. I sensed no antipathy or real argument against his leadership or the way in which he had been clear about the coalition. I think everyone was on board about the coalition and any uncertainty at the beginning of the week had significantly reduced by the end.
Simon Hughes on a panel at Liverpool Community College
Q: So you think that there was a change in mood throughout conference?

Yes, there was, absolutely, a change in mood, people came apprehensive, I think they went away reassured. They are not deceived; life is going to be difficult. They are not naive to think there will not be large cuts, there will, but I think people can understand the arguments, they can see ministers doing things that are liberal and that none of them have betrayed their principles. Then speeches from Lynne and Vince, both of which were excellent, making the point about what we have done, able to achieve and deliver. I think people would have thought this is seriously different and it clearly is.

Q – So how do you feel going forward? Has Nick heard the concerns of many delegates, particularly about the impact of the cuts?

I hope that by the fact that all ministers have been at conference as far as I know and exposed to representatives and the public that will have infused them all with the sense of the need to be accountable. Vince put it very well: I am here to give account to you, our party. I hope that what it will also mean is that people will be better equipped to lobby before the Comprehensive Spending Review; they will know where the pressure points are. For example I went to a breakfast for the BBC overseas services. People love the BBC overseas services very much. I think there will be a great deal more lobbying after this week’s breakfast and they will not take too much of a hit. But normal politics will resume again after the CSR, because we will then know the score. We will know if our lobbying has been persuasive or not and we’ll have to get on with it. It may be difficult but I know that Nick and colleagues are looking for a package that has some good and sellable things in it.
We also know that in the autumn or next year we hope to get announcements on scrapping tuition fees which will be very positive for us and on a consultation on housing, we will also hear the end of the defence review, and we may win the argument about Trident if the decision is taken to defer for five more years. And then after the CSR the party will have to take argument out to the public, no one else will do it for us and we have just over six months before crucial elections next year. It’s not just about sustaining momentum of progress, it’s about keeping significant amounts of our seats at local and national level. So we have a big task ahead, in the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, and English local government and I hope leadership will direct all their campaigning efforts to the places where we have elections.

Q Thinking about the debates, what is the difference now? What impact do you think our policy will have on our ministers and the coalition?

I made the point in my speech that now members and their collective views can and will influence government in some areas. There is no doubt, say on Trident, that our party has expressed an up-to-date view and Nick Harvey can go into the discussions with the Treasury making that clear; this has given him another string to his bow. The benefit of having the debate now is that we know the decision is coming soon and we can influence it. The debate on free schools was less influential because it was a debate about something that had been decided beforehand, all it can do is influence our councils where we might more clearly discourage free schools and academies because of party policy. The moral of the story is that we must make sure in the future that we talk about things in the pipeline that have not yet been decided and not keep wringing our hands and worrying too much about things that have been decided. I understand people will want to talk about the process, but let’s concentrate on the outcomes.

Q: But how do you think you can do that on things that unexpectedly come up, like trafficking?

We have a democratic party. We can’t get everything we want onto the agenda. It will make conference much more relevant, you will see more motions included, and in questions to ministers, the nature of conference will be much more as it was intended to be. It will make people keener to participate and make the parliament of the party, which is what conference is, have much more status. Anyone whose views are endorsed by conference will pray in aid that view in their dialogue with government. I don’t think all members realise this yet but I hope when they read this and have thought about conference they will.

Q: What would your message be to those who have left still uneasy about the future?

A: Two things really. Firstly I am aware people will have unease and that will continue. My message to them firstly is don’t believe reports unless they are reports of formal things we have done, so don’t be misled by papers who may have their own agenda, judge by the facts. In that context if there is anyone reading this and who is not a recipient of the daily bulletin, please let me or Cowley Street know and we can make sure everyone gets it. That talks about not only what we are doing but what our attitude is to things.
Secondly, in terms of personal feelings, I’d say look at the achievements already which are considerable and remember the convictions of people who are in government. As Nick advised ‘stay with us, don’t judge us in advance, judge us by what really happens, not by what our opponents say happens.’ There will be regular opportunities to challenge the leadership, to push them further , to slow them down. We do that twice a year, at conference, in the meantime, my job as I have seen it from the beginning is to be sensitive to the views of my parliamentary colleagues and to reflect that to government, and I am in no doubt that on Trident, student fees, and closing the gap between rich and poor, there are strong views and my job is to represent them and to keep battling away on these things. To be fair, Nick and colleagues are not unresponsive at all.

Q: Any final words to members?

My call to people this autumn is to go out and recruit and win supporters, to encourage people to make contact with their Student Unions and go to fresher’s fairs, now is, above all, the time to make contact with students. I’d encourage those who feel strongly about particular spending commitments to communicate that to the department in question, make contact with the minister, and respond to white and green papers, for example for the Health paper the deadline is just a few weeks away. I’d encourage you to make sure members are updated regularly, and we as a party need to build new structures of communication with them and also with other people who might be interested. That’s the way to build the party, so that’s the call – get back to your constituencies and be prepared to explain and answer questions, and to lobby – and do so.

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