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.

“Yes, Michael, but a senate can be directly elected, so what’s the problem?” you cry. Yes, but the casual listener will likely take “directly elected chamber” to mean simply a nation-wide uniformly representative body just like the House of Commons. This isn’t how senates generally work. The purpose of a senate is not to represent the people – that is the remit of the lower house – but to represent the constituent states of the union as geo-political entities. The US Senate has precisely two directly elected Senators per state irrespective of area and population. Canada and Germany, with far fewer states, have degressive proportionality (like the EU Parliament) to ensure smaller states are not dominated by larger ones. Germany’s Bundesrat is populated by members of each state’s parliament whilst Canada has a rather strange system of appointed Senators. What sort of Senate should the UK have? Not thinking about it at all isn’t an ideal position having clearly adopted a federalist agenda.

I find it disappointing that when Gordon Brown recently called for an “upper house of the nations and regions”, he demonstrated being more ahead of the game than the Liberal Democrats, even though he appears to be too nesh to use the F-word. A House of Lords reconstituted to represent the English regions, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, whether directly elected or not, is the ideal stepping stone: it translate directly into a federal senate at a later date yet sits perfectly well as a drop-in replacement for the Lords in our current unitary state.

In that sense, I would hope the Liberal Democrats can form a view on a preferred model for a Senate, whenever in the electoral cycle there might be time for such an incremental addition to our policies on political reform. Whilst in the meantime I can’t really begrudge the use of the headline policy “an elected House of Lords”, I hope nobody begrudged me taking thirty seconds to bang on about federalism yet again and highlight the need to join together a few more of the policy dots without distracting too much from the imminent needs of the general election manifesto.

* Michael is an English Council representative for the East of England

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  • Robert Harrison 1st Oct '23 - 9:37am

    In addition to members coming from the nations and regions of the UK, any “senate” should also have representatives from the British diaspora abroad – as does the French Senat.

  • Michael Kilpatrick Michael Kilpatrick 1st Oct '23 - 12:28pm

    Interesting point, Harry. Remember that various former French colonies are still actually part of France with representation in Parliament. I don’t know, however, what voting rights French citizens have who are living in other random places abroad such as here in the UK. Is there separate representation of overseas residents as distinct from citizens of the Territories?

    I hadn’t previously considered the details of that in relation to a federal UK and our overseas residents. Should overseas residents have a “constituency” in the Commons (which would mean having a say in all sorts of domestic legislation that doesn’t affect them) or only a say in the Senate as a form of “overseas go-political body” interested in only the more important constitutional questions (such as citizenship and rights, clearly an issue that affects them)?

  • Michael Kilpatrick Michael Kilpatrick 1st Oct '23 - 12:32pm

    Sorry, I wrote Harry rather than Robert! Typing whilst walking the dog..

    Another point related to this was made by Iain Donaldson who was on the former Policy Working Group. He suggested that in a federal UK the constitution would allow the Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies to apply to become full-blown members of the federal union. I’m assuming, however that your point was concerned with Brits who live abroad elsewhere?

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