Tag Archives: 2023 spring conference

Disagree well

I have always felt very comfortable to be a member of a party that is able to disagree well. Sometimes Liberal Democrats have been so bloody reasonable we have taken the side of our opponents in a debate!

However, I have been increasingly concerned that this almost unique characteristic has at times been at risk of being lost in the recent debate on gender identity and the recent call for members who disagree to leave the party has compelled me to speak out.

I voted for the Gender Recognition Reform Bill in the Scottish Parliament. Several party members opposed the bill on perfectly understandable grounds. Many have been members for decades and are dedicated to the party and its beliefs. Now they are being told they are no longer welcome because they just can’t agree with the official position of the party.

Some seem to believe that to question the implications of self-identification, even in a nuanced way, is to question the very rights of trans people.  However, I believe it is possible to disagree but still defend the rights of trans people. I know these members; they are generous and kind liberals, and I would never describe them as transphobes.

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17-19 March 2023 – the Conference weekend press releases (part 2)

  • Lib Dems call for emergency action to end dental deserts
  • Banks’ £17.8 billion tax cut could have funded pay rise for 150,000 carers
  • Lib Dems call for long-term strategy to end energy crisis

Lib Dems call for emergency action to end dental deserts

The Liberal Democrats have blasted the Government for the spread of ‘dental deserts’ across the UK.

Vast areas of the country are without access to NHS dental appointments, often in rural or deprived areas.

The Party passed a motion at its Spring Conference today which called for urgent reform to the NHS dental contract to ensure everyone can get the care they need and isn’t forced to go private.

The plans also call for an emergency scheme to ensure children, pregnant women and young mothers have access to their free check ups on time.

This comes as Healthwatch England found that 41% of people are struggling to get an NHS dental appointment, with one in five unable to access all the treatments they needed.

Under the proposals, there would be an increase to the number of dentist training places in the UK and continued recognition of EU trained dentists’ qualifications.

The Liberal Democrats are also calling for the removal of VAT on children’s toothbrushes and children’s toothpaste.

Liberal Democrat Spokesperson for Health and Social Care, Daisy Cooper MP said:

Our NHS dental system is completely broken. NHS appointments are scarce at best and in some places don’t exist at all. People are being forced to spend hundreds if not thousands of pounds on private dental care with some even resorting to their own at-home DIY dentistry.

This Conservative Government has done next to nothing to tackle this crisis.

Rishi Sunak would rather engage in divisive culture wars to cover up his government’s appalling record on the NHS, which is leaving dental patients in pain and distress.

The Liberal Democrats believe that everyone should be able to access a dentist when they need one.

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Welcome to my day: 20 March 2023 – how was it for you?

Train journeys back from Conference tend to offer a chance to reflect on the events of the past few days, especially for someone who likes to travel in a bubble of isolation (nothing personal, fellow Liberal Democrats, but sometimes I just like to be alone). And this Conference has been no different.

Was their journey really necessary?

Sadly, the culture wars that have poisoned our national body politic have come to the Liberal Democrats and, unlike our more authoritarian opposite numbers, we’re curiously more vulnerable in some ways. Many of us find confrontation enervating rather than enjoyable, and we have a tendency to wish away conflict rather than address it head-on. And I do get that – we’re (mostly) nice people who want to be welcoming. And that means that not so lovely people can get quite far into the Party’s core before anyone necessarily notices.

However, at some point, unless you draw lines in the sand in terms of behaviour and values, you find that what you had is gone forever, and that the liberal party you thought you were part of is no more. And it does happen, for example in Hungary, where it is now hard to believe we were once a sister party to FIDESZ, the conservative nationalist party which forms the most unpleasant administration in the European Union.

It is at times like this, therefore, that those who believe in the liberal values of tolerance and mutual respect have to step up as Conference did on Saturday.

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It’s time for gender critical people to leave

This spring conference season Lib Dems filed into the auditorium to hear a motion that would amend this piece of the constitution, to remove all references to self-ID and non-binary people:

Whenever this Constitution provides for the election by party members to a Federal Committee, not less than 40% or, if 40% is not a whole number, the whole number nearest to but not exceeding 40% of those elected shall self-identify as men or non-binary people, and self-identify as women or non-binary people respectively.

And this spring conference, a weary bunch of Liberals – tired of the constant, fundamental attacks on our values from a determined and illiberal minority – moved to ignore it entirely, a vote that passed with such a staggering majority that you could weigh the result.

The message was clear: “go away”. And now it’s time for those critical of gender identity – in the footsteps of those critical of sexual identity – to leave the Liberal Democrats.

The writing is on the door – there is no space for bigotry in this party. And while our byzantine machinery has allowed this motion to reach the conference floor, no representative auditorium will pass it.

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Fantastic Fairer Society

It is fantastic that Conference passed the Fairer Society policy paper yesterday. As a member of the working group, I spent a significant amount of time working across a number of aspects of the paper, including providing a lot of the drafting for the workers rights section, alongside fantastic contributions from Laura Gordon and others.

A brief aside, while I am very disappointed that UBI was not picked from the options, it was absolutely fantastic to see Members of Parliament rally behind a commitment to end deep poverty within 10 years. It will make a real difference to a great many …

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Ed Davey: Lib Dems to target Labour voters in ‘blue wall’ swing seats

Ed Davey has been talking with the Guardian ahead of our Spring Conference. He outlines more about the Blue Wall strategy that the party has adopted – targeting parliamentary seats that are currently held by the Conservatives but where we were in second place.

The planned campaign of letters in Conservative-held commuter belt constituencies where the Lib Dems are the main challengers will be intended to persuade Labour supporters to lend their vote – not just as a means to change the government but because “they feel an affinity with us”, Davey said.

The letters, from Davey himself, will set out the Lib Dems’ promise to immediately restore overseas aid to 0.7% of GDP, saying it was vital the UK properly supported people in places such as Syria and Afghanistan.

For experienced campaigners there is nothing really new about this, although in the past the party has not always revealed its hand so clearly.

Ed said:

We want to make sure that in seats like these, people who would otherwise vote Labour aren’t voting for us just because we’re the only ones who can beat the Conservatives.

I’d like them to do it because they actually quite like us, and they feel an affinity with us. And I think they should with some of the positions we’ve been taking.

This isn’t being competitive against Labour in these seats, and I’m not trying to say you’re wrong to be Labour inclined. My push is to say: look at the Liberal Democrats. We share a lot in common.

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Let’s take a stand at conference against the cruel Braverman Bill

The Conservatives are intent on dragging our country off a cliff with their Small Boats Bill. As Liberal Democrats, we must do everything in our power to stop it – starting at Conference this weekend.

Suella Braverman’s Bill says that anyone who enters the UK via a small boat will be immediately detained and deported to another country as soon as possible. Just like their botched Rwanda plan, this is immoral, unworkable and incredibly expensive for the taxpayer.

We all want to tackle people smuggling and prevent people from making dangerous attempts to cross the Channel, but this bill will do nothing of the sort. The Conservatives are still refusing to provide safe and legal routes to sanctuary in the UK. Instead, they are demonising vulnerable people and giving impunity to the real criminals – human traffickers.

At the same time, they are stripping back hard-won protections for the most vulnerable. The ban on child detention was a Liberal Democrat policy that we proudly put into law in 2014 – now under threat from this government. Important legal limits on how long pregnant women can be detained are also at risk.

The consequences go even deeper. By using the bill to exclude certain groups of people from accessing their rights – whether it is the protections under the Modern Slavery Act, the Human Rights Act or the European Convention on Human Rights – the Conservatives are setting a dangerous precedent.

They are acting like they can pick and choose what rights our government must protect, while also picking and choosing who can stand up for their rights if they are harmed. Small wonder, then, that backbench Conservative MPs are rumoured to be plotting to use this legislation to push for the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights. Their dangerous rhetoric has only been emboldened by the Home Secretary.

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Towards a fairer society: Universal Basic Income vs Guaranteed Basic Income

On Saturday conference will discuss an important paper about tackling the many sources of unfairness in our society.  I wrote about this for Liberal Democrat Voice in September when we were expecting to discuss them, and, given the importance of the issues, thought it worth republishing the substance of that article now.

The paper on fairness includes essential short term measures to deal with the cost of living crisis but its main focus is more strategic – covering lifelong employment support, more power to local communities and better workforce protections.

The conference motion also offers a choice – and conference will vote between two ambitious long term proposals to end poverty – a Universal Basic Income (UBI), and a Guaranteed Basic Income (GBI).

(There is also a third option which reserves judgement until both of these approaches have been fully tested over a number of years.)

The UBI proposal scraps income tax and national insurance personal allowances for everyone of working age, so that we all pay tax and national insurance on the first pound that we receive. That costs anyone currently paying tax £78 a week. The proposal also introduces a new payment to all working age adults of £78 (the “Universal Basic Income”) – so if you were previously paying tax you end up in the same place as before, but if you aren’t earning enough to pay tax, you are better off.  The current benefits system is retained but the UBI is treated as income under it – so that benefits are reduced; someone on Universal Credit would typically see a net benefit of £35 a week.  This way of delivering UBI is the output of two years of development by working groups – on which I served – and is very similar to proposals by some of the leading think tanks advocating UBI.

The GBI proposal is more directly targeted on ensuring everyone has a decent minimum standard of living. It establishes a commitment over time to get all households to a certain income level, and uses a reformed version of the existing benefits system to steadily increase the amount of this ‘guaranteed base’. An independent commission is set up to hold the government to account in terms of setting the right level over time – in much the same way as has been successfully done with the minimum wage.

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Raise a glass in York

Conference has always been a central element in my involvement in the Liberal Democrats. Like many of us, all year round I spend a large proportion of my waking hours doing things for the party – and being able to make links, exchange ideas and, yes, gossip with people from across the country at conference not only makes doing that year-round work easier, but also makes it very very much more fun. I have really missed them over the last three and a half years – with the final cruel punch of the last-minute cancellation for non-pandemic reasons of last autumn’s big return conference feeling particularly unfair.

So I will be thrilled to be back in York this weekend, surrounded by Liberal Democrats.

But as I finally get to catch up again with many of you, I will be giving more than a thought or two to some of those who I will not get the chance to see again at conference.

That last conference we held, in Bournemouth in 2019, “the one where Jo Swinson was leader”, was the last time I saw my former boss, Steve Hitchins, previously Leader of Islington Council. Steve was certainly not about to allow his walking difficulties stop him from getting up on to the stage and telling us how the health policies we were debating seemed to him as a former chair of an acute NHS Trust. Steve tragically and unexpectedly passed away just a few weeks later – a much too early sad loss of one of the party’s most robust campaigners and one of its most effective champions of frontline diversity.

In York I will, as always, go to an LDEG fringe meeting. But I will not see Derek Honeygold sitting – like Ted Heath – in a corner seat on the front row, as he must have done at pretty much every LDEG fringe meeting ever. In March 2020 Derek became one of the first victims of covid. LDEG fringes will not be the same without his twinkling eyes and intriguing contributions to the debate.

When I make it to the bar later, I will not turn round from ordering drinks to see there the beaming smile of Robert Woodthorpe-Browne, long a smiling stalwart of the party’s international scene, with something funny and interesting to say to me. Always so enthusiastic and encouraging, from LI Congresses in Africa and being chair of the international relations committee (FIRC), to the streets of London that I once went canvassing with him on, Robert’s utterly irrepressible energy made a huge contribution to the party before his very sudden death from a stroke this last autumn.

I will not have the chance to sup again from the well of the erudition of Jonathan Fryer – another deeply committed Liberal Democrat internationalist, former chair of the international relations committee and eternally super-enthusiastic MEP candidate. But too a regular BBC broadcaster, public Quaker, lecturer and so many other things – including, astonishingly, biographer and friend of Christopher Isherwood – before his awfully sudden and tragic death from a brain tumour.

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Multilateralist, respecting international law and learning from history

International security is a hot topic since Putin`s “Special Military Operation” launched against Ukraine a year ago. Most people recognise it for what it was, an invasion by a despot of questionable sanity. A wide debate has been prompted by Putin having “moved the goalposts of the conditions under which Russia would launch a first nuclear strike.”

The Lib Dem “Defence Team” has put together a motion which is an ultra-cautious approach to defence policy, probably not wishing to rock the middle-of-the-road approach thought to be necessary in order not to frighten off the soft conservative vote. But it is a …

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Shirley Williams: Liberal Lion and Trailblazer

When Shirley Williams died in April 2021, Sir Ed Davey paid tribute to a “a Liberal lion” and remembered her as a “trailblazer” and an “inspiration to millions”. 

There were many other affectionate tributes. Unusually for a politician, Shirley was widely loved during her lifetime. David Steel once described her as “a national treasure, rather like the late Queen Mum”. As a Liberal Democrat icon, she stood alongside Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy.

Shirley Williams was, after all, the most popular of the “Gang of Four” who broke away from Labour in 1981 and formed the Social Democratic Party (SDP). Roy Jenkins and David Owen provided the political weight and gravitas, but Shirley provided the personal warmth and empathy. With her stunning victory at the Crosby by-election in November 1981, she was the first candidate to be elected as an MP under the new party’s banner. “Shirl the Pearl”, as she was known, later became the first president of the SDP. 

Even so, her broad and enduring popularity was, in some ways, remarkable. Shirley last held government office in 1979 –as education secretary in Jim Callaghan’s ill-fated Labour government, from when she was best remembered for expanding the comprehensive school system. She passed up the chance to contest the SDP’s first leadership election in 1982 and lost Crosby the following year, a victim of adverse boundary changes, and never returned to the Commons. 

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Democracy in Israel and Palestine

If you have been following to news from Palestine & Israel in recent weeks, you will have seen the appalling rise in violence which has left many dead and even more severely injured on both sides.  The violence reached a peak last week with what can only be described as a pogrom carried out by Israeli Settlers on the Palestinian village of Harawa after two young Israelis had been killed by a Palestinian gunman.

This rise in violence is worrying and is no doubt connected with the threats to democracy by the new Israeli Government under Binyamin Netanyahu which includes, for the first time in Israeli history, two far right extremist Parties, the Religious Zionists led by Bezalel Smotrich, and Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) led by Itamar Ben Gvir and also by total lack of democracy in the Occupied Palestinian Territories where elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council & President haven’t been held since 2006.

In Israel, as part of the Coalition agreement for the new Israeli Government, Netanyahu is introducing what he calls “Judicial Reforms” that will have the effect of:

  1. severely curtailing Judicial Independence in Israel,
  2. limiting the Israeli Supreme Court’s ability to overturn laws passed by the Knesset that that violate fundamental rights protected by Israel’s “Basic Laws”,
  3. dilute the role of the Attorney General in giving legal advice and
  4. give Ministers more powers to act without fear of Judicial Review.

This means that the Israel Judiciary will no longer have a role in containing the excesses of the Government, a Government that seems hell bent on creating an apartheid regime in Occupied Palestine and silencing its critics in Israel.

For the last two months, since the Judicial Reform legislation was published, every Saturday night ten of thousands of Israelis have been taking to the streets in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and many other towns across Israel to protest against these proposals.  Even President Herzog has called for the Government to pause the legislation and reach a compromise with its opponents.  Even here in the UK, Israelis living here have protested outside the Israeli Embassy.  This week, reservist pilots in the Israeli Air Force have refused to attend training days in protest against these “Reforms” and other reservists (and most adults under 45 in Israel are in the reserves) are also refusing to show up for duty.  Many are realising that the Occupation of Palestine is what is destroying democracy in their country.

In Palestine, the lack of any democratic outlet for change is driving many, especially younger Palestinians to support new armed militant groups such as Lion’s Den.  The old guard around Mahmoud Abbas is clinging to power but there is a vacuum behind them. This has allowed the militants groups like Hamas, Islamic Jihad and now Lion’s Den to try to fill the gap because they see no other obvious possibility for achieving self-determination and statehood.  The Israeli Government hasn’t helped, with its very heavy-handed raids on these militant groups’ safe houses in the Occupied Territories, killing not only members of these groups but also civilians.

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Securing a liberal Britain in hard times

Getting elected locally, becoming a citizen and living in freedom or security should be tackled in the right order. I just did the opposite. Arriving from Australia as an immigrant in 2016 (pre Brexit), getting elected a Councillor last May and becoming an UK citizen last month was a journey that made me think: how do I as a LibDem contribute to the safety, security and sustainability of our country? There are no easy answers but some clear pointers to what we might need: progressive, practical and patriotic steps to make Britain its liberal best.

I wrote back in March 2022 on LibDem Voice (Defence and Security: at the heart of liberal societies) about a growing think tank based at the National Liberal Club that reaches hundreds across the UK and the world by hybrid talks and expert discussions. I am also an Armed Forces Champion of my Council (shared with a colleague) with responsibility to the whole community. Veterans, serving members, cadets and their families expect all local governments to keep the covenant between community and those who serve.

But that is the smaller arena and the local or narrow pathway.

We as LibDems are at the heart of many national debates on matters of significance: the war in Ukraine, the risk of further Russian aggression, the role of China as a strategic competitor to our internationalist and liberal values for starters. Times have never been harder since the 1980s.

We also remain the voice of many who are deeply disgusted by this shabby Conservative government and are unconvinced by the rising Labour Opposition. Data and polling may suggest that our voters and supporters are well informed, educated and engaged on the big issues – the environment, education, cost of living crisis economics and social justice. But we are also the proud custodians of traditions of liberalism, social democracy and dissenting progressive values that reflect on the defence of the realm, the international order and our broader obligations to allies, partners and neighbours.

The emergence of an associated organisation “LibDem Friends of the Armed Forces” is no surprise. The upcoming debate at York Conference in less than three weeks on an enhanced/evolved defence policy fit for purpose and electorally sound for the times we face is another natural step.

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Spring Conference – Get your awkward questions in….

One of the important bits of our internal party democracy is that each of the Federal Committees needs to submit a report to Conference, which is subject to a vote. The chair of the Committee also takes questions at Conference.

These accountability sessions are often boring, but can, occasionally, make important changes.

Back in 2021, a member used the report session on the Federal Board to submit a request for a separate vote which ended the Steering Group project. This had been introduced as a way of streamlining the decision-making process which many people, myself included, saw as reducing accountability. I was very annoyed that my mandate as a directly elected Board member had been interfered with in this way.

The irony of this is that that vote would have passed if the “payroll” vote had been around. Although the Conference was online, our MPs and senior office bearers were actually in Canary Wharf, where Ed Davey was going to give his leader’s speech to an audience for the first time since the pandemic.

The opportunities for decent scrutiny in the party are diminishing rapidly, so the Conference session is an important opportunity for members to have their say.

The committee reports have now been published and there’s a lot to chew over.  New appointments to the Federal Appeals Panel, changes to the disciplinary process, new affiliated organisations to approve and work plans for all the committees are in there. I was drawn to something a bit spicy that departing Federal People Development Committee Chair Mary Regnier Wilson said in her report as it chimed with the article I wrote on Saturday about the need for us to develop a compelling pitch for people’s votes.

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Plan ahead – rail strikes planned for Spring Conference weekend

The railway workers’ union the RMT has announced a series of strikes planned for March and April.

The dates of the strikes are the 16th, 18th and 30th of March, and the 1st of April.

The first two dates are the Thursday right before conference, and the Saturday of Conference, both of which dates might impact those travelling to conference.

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Out now – Spring Conference Agenda and Directory

The agenda and directory for Spring Conference has been published today. The first in-person federal conference since September 2019 takes place from 17-19 March.

You can read all the details of the motions up for debate, fringe meetings, exhibitors and training here.

If you read any of the motions and think, you know what, they’ve missed out this, or we should do this instead, you can submit an amendment with the support of 10 members, or an affiliated organisation like the Young LIberals by 1pm on 6th March.

You can ask the Federal Conference Committee to advise you on how to draft your suggestion by 1pm on 20th February.  That is next Monday. You don’t have to get drafting advice, though, n order to submit an amendment.

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Mark Pack’s monthly report: January 2023

The year ahead

It’s possible, just possible, that British politics may return to a relative normality in 2023. We might have a year without any change of Prime Minister, without a general election and without a pandemic. We will certainly have a year with a failing Conservative government, vital public services under strain and an important opportunity to continue our recovery with the May local elections.

Rishi Sunak has already demonstrated he brings neither competency nor moderation to replace the incompetent extremism of his predecessors. He didn’t use his political honeymoon to make difficult decisions for the long-term. He’s treating promises to take an issue personally as a substitute for action, and kicked so many decisions into the long grass. Whether it’s reforming social care or building onshore wind farms, time and again his response is to dither rather than to act.

Looming over all those issues is the continued failure of Brexit. As Daisy Cooper put it to Times Radio, “This Conservative Brexit deal isn’t working for Britain”. Instead, she set out the Liberal Democrat alternative four-step plan to improve our trade relations with Europe.  (Take a listen here.) That’s the way both to make an immediate difference to people’s lives and to help prepare the way for the longer-term battle over Britain’s future with the EU.

To succeed, we need to continue to rebuild our grassroots campaigning strength, to build our membership and supporter base, to raise our game on diversity and inclusion, and to invest in the best data and technology.

Watch out for more news on all of those through the year – and I’d really encourage everyone planning campaign work through to May to include talking to supporters, getting them to help and join, as part of that. Local parties can secure cash bonuses for members recruited or renewed; details here.

York conference – in person!

I’m looking forward to meeting members in person again at a federal conference, with our first in-person one for so long coming up in York on 15-17 March. It will include keynote speeches, policy debates, training, fringe meetings and more.  You can find out more and register here.

How Lib Dems are tackling homelessness

The BBC reported over Christmas a great example of the difference we can make to people’s lives:

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Registration opens for Scottish and Federal Spring Conferences

It was lovely to wake up to an email from Federal Conference Committee Chair Nick Da Costa announcing that registration was open for Spring Conference which takes place from 17-19 March in York.

It will be the first time the federal party has gathered in person since September 2019 in Bournemouth. Back then, Wendy Chamberlain was the PPC for North East Fife and Jo Swinson had just taken over as leader.

Federal Conference is simply the most fun you can ever have as a Liberal Democrat. It’s intense, passionate, exhilarating and this time will have the added joy of seeing everyone again. We’ll have lots to debate in a beautiful Lib Dem run city.

If you can’t go, you can register to watch and vote online.

All the information you could possibly want about registration is here – and note that there is a hefty discount if you are a first timer.

And the relevant deadlines for submitting items for debate follow.

Drafting advice deadline (motions): 16 December at 13.00

Motions deadline: 11 January at 13.00

Amendments drafting advice deadline (emergency motions and amendments): 14 February at 13.00

Amendments and Emergency Motions deadline and deadline for Appeals against non-selection of motions: 6 March at 13.00

Appeals deadline for Amendments and Emergency Motions: 16 March at 13.00

Yesterday, the Scottish Party announced that Scottish Spring Conference would take place the week before, on 10-11 March in the lovely city of Dundee. You can register here.

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