The Liberal Democrats' Spring Conference in York - 2016

March 14, 2016 4:42 PM
By Simon Banks

There are always places for a keen member to attend Party Conference as one of our representatives, and anyway, now any member can attend and vote (if they can affords the travel and accommodation costs plus the registration fee). However, as far as I know I was NEELD's only person at our Spring Conference this year, despite York being such a wonderful place and relatively easy to get to.

I try to open up to views and questions on the issues that will be before Conference, but this time I didn't. This was because of two things - a holiday in India (with much to be arranged beforehand) and forthcoming Colchester elections, which involve parts of our local party area, in particular Wivenhoe.

Our conference was upbeat, well-attended and thoroughly democratic, with real debates on major issues and decisions taken for the Party. There were plenty of young people present, mostly new members, but also lots of greybeards and their female equivalents: I don't fall into this category because my beard isn't yet grey. If anything, the underrepresented age group was about 26-59.

Three big decisions are likely to interest many people - on fracking, on cannabis and on achievinbg a better balance of parliamentary candidates and MPs in terms of gender particularly, but also race, disability and other characteristics.

Unusually for me, I found myself siding with the winners on all three.

On fracking, we heard several engineers saying it was safe, but also a water engineer of standing saying it wasn't possible to be sure. Some points influenced me. Even if the technology could be made safe with adequate regulation, which was disputed, I was pretty sure this big-business-pally government would skimp on regulation; so a position for our party that said, "Fracking is good, but only if (a), (b), (c) and (d)..." would be a little too nuanced. I was aware from Charles Perrow's fascinating book "Normal Accidents" that experts often underestimate risk because they think of separated systems, whereas accidents often occur when two things that are theoretically quite separate happen to interact. I also thought that if there was the slightest doubt about the dafety of fracking, considering the huge damage that could be done (pollution of aquifers, for a start) we should wait while we improved the technology and leave the shale gas in the bank for the most serious energy crisis predicted around the 2080s. It can't be used twice.

The vote decisively rejected fracking.

On cannabis, it's long been said in the Party that the "war on drugs" was failing and unwinnable, except for the gangsters. So the position now taken shouldn't be a big surprise. There has been a working group chaired by Norman Lamb MP, a former Health minister, and including one current and one former chief constable. It reached the conclusion that cannabis should be legalised and regulated. A motion to that effect was proposed by Norman Lamb. Nearly everybody wanting to speak was in favour and the vote was almost unanimous. There were powerful and informative speeches, for example from someone who had coped better with brain cancer thanks to cannabis and a Welsh Police and Crime Commissioner candidate who pointed out that in his quiet, rural area, about 140 people died each year on the roads and yet police found time to prosecute so many people for cannabis possession that the convictions per head of population were higher than enywhere else in the UK except Merseyside.

Some points that weighed with me were: that illegal supply lined criminals' pockets, just as with alcohol in 1920s Prohibition America; that pursuing cannabis took up much valuable police and court time; that many people not otherwise criminally inclined became criminals with blighted prospects once convicted over cannabis; that legal, strictly regulated supply would make it much HARDER for children or even very heavy users to obtain it; and that several American states and the Netherlands already did something similar. There was every chance for opposite arguments to be put, but they weren't put.

I voted for the motion.

We also resolved a very important internal issue. We have no female MPs now, we never had many and our candidates' list is 77% male. We haven't had a minority ethnic MP since one in 2004-5. The motion included measures to combat inequality at various levels (not enough, I think, about RECRUITING more female and minority ethnic MEMBERS), but the controversial bit was about all-women shortlists. The proposal was mild enough - that where a sitting Liberal Democrat MP (we have eight) decided not to stand in 2020, his replacement should be from an all-woman shortlist (at a guess, this covers two seats);that any local party could decide to have an all-woman shortlist; and that each regional party should select one other seat for an all-woman shortlist (which hopefully would mean they would NOT name a constituency where a very well-established male activist had planned to stand againor one where it was known a minority ethnic or disabled man stood a good chance). All this would apply for one election only. The law currently allows all-women or all-disabled shortlists but not all-Black, all-gay or whatever.

An amendment would have cut all three provisions. That was one too much for me as I was happy with the power for local parties while very uncertain about the other two. I've long believed positive discrimination is acceptable only if all else has clearly failed. Had we reached that point? The proposers argued powerfully that we had. The opponents mostly said the motion would lead to the selection of "token women". With misgivings, I voted for the motion, which passed unamended.

At the end, Tim Farron gave an inspiring, passionate, compassionate speech.

Oh, and our creaking railway system made a political point. On the way to York, a broken-down train ahead meant I missed a connection. On the way back...you've guessed it.