Unsolicited advice: What @timfarron should have said to Cathy Newman

Since I haven’t blogged about Tim at all yet, I should probably begin (just to be clear where I’m coming from) by saying that I voted for Tim, and I was thrilled that he won the leadership contest. I think Tim will be a fantastic asset to the party during his tenure as leader.

Anyhoo, last night he gave an interview to Channel 4 News’s Cathy Newman (reported here under the bizarrely self-referential headline “Tim Farron asked three times if gay sex is a sin”) which has caused some uproar amongst some within the party, not least those with doubts about Tim’s ability to separate his faith from his role as an MP legislating for people of all faiths and none.

Norman Lamb’s leadership campaign (ultimately unsuccessful, but nevertheless quite effective, having narrowed the expected margin between the two contenders substantially) played quite heavily on these doubts, and certainly made misgivings about Tim’s faith more of a live issue within the party. In my own case, feeling like I know reasonably well who Tim is, and, as a bisexual man, feeling like I am quite capable of evaluating his record on LGBT rights for myself, the Lamb campaign’s dog whistling proved counter-productive, making me if anything more inclined to support Tim. Given the reactions last night of a number of friends, acquaintances, and fellow LGBT+ folk who I’ve not yet met, I suspect I wasn’t the only one.

As ever, the news media like to tug at anything they perceive as a loose thread, to see what might unravel. I don’t think it’s entirely fair, though, to blame Norman’s campaign for this line of questioning. As many people who had doubts about Tim argued, it’s not just that he’s a Christian, it’s that his voting record in some areas is sufficiently out of line with the majority of the party, and in ways which, superficially, fit into a standard “traditional Christian” frame. As such, the question of whether his faith determines his actions as a politician is a legitimate one, and one of which we probably haven’t heard the last. It’s for that reason that I’m writing about this, rather than just ignoring it and hoping we all move onto something more interesting, much as I’d like to.

The general objection to last night’s interview was that Tim sounded shifty and evasive, and I’ve seen a number of comments about last night’s interview along the lines of “Tim needs to have a better, sharper answer to questions like this”, but not many suggestions as to what that answer should be. After all, the consensus seems to be that a straight “yes” or “no” answer wouldn’t help either, leading inevitably to more questions; to return to the “loose thread” metaphor, once they start pulling on it, where does it stop? So I thought I’d have a go at figuring out what the problem with Tim’s answers actually is, and what the right answer might look like. Firstly, here’s what actually was said in the interview:

CN: You’ve abstained during votes on Same Sex Marriage in the past. You’ve said recently that, politically, you regret that. Personally, though, do you think, as a Christian, that homosexual sex is a sin?

TF: Well I think that, first of all, I mean, somebody who is a Christian does not then go enforcing their views on other people. And it’s not our issues, our views on personal morality that matter, what matters is do we go out there and fight for the freedom of every single individual to be who they wish to be –

CN: OK, I take your point –

TF: That’s what makes a liberal.

CN: OK, but I’m asking for your personal view, do you personally, as a Christian, believe that homosexual sex is a sin?

TF: To understand Christianity is to understand that we are all sinners, and perhaps the Bible phrase that I use most with my kids, but actually on myself, is that you don’t pick out the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye, when there is a plank in your own. The reality is, to understand the Bible, and if perhaps another time you want a long theological discussion, the – my understanding is – well, my firm belief is that we are all sinners.

CN: OK, but when the Bible says “you shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female, it is an abomination” you don’t have any problem with that?

TF: Well look, I mean, so – fundamentally, my faith is based upon my belief that Jesus Christ is who he said he is. But, again, Cathy, you know, this is a very interesting discussion, it’s important to me, but I’ve not just been –

CN: But it’s important to your party as well, because these are values that I appreciate are your personal values, but they’re not very liberal values, are they?

TF: I mean, come off it, we’ve just been led, or at least we were for seven years during, you know, the early part of this last decade, by a Roman Catholic for seven years; Charles Kennedy who led us so passionately against the appalling Blair/Bush Iraq war, and who built us up to our strongest point in our recent history. We were led, admittedly a century and a bit ago, by Gladstone, arguably our most successful leader ever. This is the party that is based upon religious tolerance, and indeed the tolerance of people who are not religious at all, and defending the rights of every individual, whether they be a member of a minority or not. It’s a peculiar thing to say that somebody who happens to belong to a religious group, who’s a Christian, can’t be a liberal. It’s exactly the opposite: to be a member of a minority group of any kind, is to understand in a very clear way, why it is that every minority, every individual’s rights matter. My rights are your rights, whatever you believe, whatever I believe.

What strikes me immediately about those answers is that, much as Tim has felt it unfair that he is asked such faith-based questions, his instinct is always to answer them “as a Christian” first, and “as a Liberal” second. Each time Newman asks him whether he thinks “homosexual sex is a sin”, the first substantive things he says are, respectively:

“somebody who is a Christian does not…”

“To understand Christianity…”

“fundamentally, my faith is based upon…”

The first and last time, he does manage to work his way around to how that fits into the picture of his liberalism:

“…That’s what makes a liberal.”

“… It’s exactly the opposite: to be a member of a minority group of any kind, is to understand in a very clear way, why it is that every minority, every individual’s rights matter.”

It is precisely because Tim offers answers to such questions which do explore his views on faith that he will keep getting asked them. I assume that this is not accidental, that Tim has consciously decided that it is important to him not to hide his faith, and indeed to take opportunities to affirm publicly his “belief that Jesus Christ is who he said he is”, etc. It’s not a view I share (I’m an atheist), but I can empathise with it, given the basic parameters of a Christian faith. I’d love to figure out a response to Newman’s questions which is compatible with that urge and doesn’t open a can of worms, but I have to admit I’m a bit stumped.

Nonetheless, the honesty which is at the heart of Tim’s apparent shiftiness here (he refuses to say something which he doesn’t really feel, even if it might be a more expedient answer) is an asset, not a liability. The willingness to actually engage with a question which Tim shows here is laudable, it’s just that he needs to remember what his priorities are when being interviewed as leader of the Liberal Democrats, not as “Tim Farron, Christian”. Whilst being mindful of the need to “let Bartlet be Bartlet“, then, my conclusion is that the best way for Tim to conduct himself as leader of the party is to train himself to make sure that the first words out of his mouth in response to such questions are always “Liberal-first”. What might that look like? I’d love to hear other suggestions, but here’s my stab at it:

CN: You’ve abstained during votes on Same Sex Marriage in the past. You’ve said recently that, politically, you regret that. Personally, though, do you think, as a Christian, that homosexual sex is a sin?

TF: First of all, Cathy, I voted in favour of Same Sex Marriage at Second Reading, the kind of “broad principle” stage of the legislative process. I abstained at Third Reading, the “nitty-gritty details” stage of the process, because I did feel there were areas of the bill which were insufficiently liberal. One of those areas was on conscience protections for registrars, which is about freedom of religion, a key liberal principle. Another area was on the spousal veto, an area of the bill which was (and still is) of great concern to many trans people. What I regret is that people have read that abstention as me being opposed to Same Sex Marriage, which I am not. What matters here is not my own personal faith, what matters is how I do my job as a liberal.

CN: OK, I take your point, but I’m asking for your personal view, do you personally, as a Christian, believe that homosexual sex is a sin?

TF: Look, I’m not going to answer that directly, Cathy, and let me explain why. As a Liberal, I believe in the separation of Church and State, and my role, the reason I’m on your programme tonight, is that I lead a political party – I am very much on the “State” side of that separation. I don’t think it’s particularly helpful in a secular democracy for our politicians to start pontificating about their own personal views on faith, so I’m not going to do it now, no matter how many times you ask me. The question is not what I might think is a sin or not, the question is where the law should stand, and what rights and protections people should have. As a Liberal, my instinct on that question is to protect individuals rights and freedoms, whether that is the freedom to love who you love, or the freedom to believe what you believe.

CN: OK, but when the Bible says “you shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female, it is an abomination” you don’t have any problem with that?

TF: Well look, I am not here to lead a theological discussion about individual verses in the Bible. As important as that is to me, it isn’t my job as leader of the Liberal Democrats. If you want a range of considered views on that question I suggest you take it up with the clergy.

CN: But it’s important to your party as well, because these are values that I appreciate are your personal values, but they’re not very liberal values, are they?

TF: I think that’s a fundamental misreading of what liberalism is. This is the party that is based upon religious tolerance, and indeed the tolerance of people who are not religious at all, and defending the rights of every individual, whether they be a member of a minority or not. “Liberal values” are not about what positions people may or may not hold as a matter of personal faith, “liberal values” are about tolerating others who you don’t agree with, and protecting each others’ rights to live our lives as we choose to, so long as we aren’t harming anyone else. It’s a peculiar thing to say that somebody who happens to belong to a religious group, who’s a Christian, can’t be a liberal. It’s exactly the opposite: to be a member of a minority group of any kind, is to understand in a very clear way, why it is that every minority, every individual’s rights matter. My rights are your rights, whatever you believe, whatever I believe.

Anyone got a better idea?

Lib Dem Year Zero?

I suspect that the current flurry of posts about where the party goes from here are as much about helping their authors get their own thoughts straight as they are about joining an internal party debate, and if so then what follows shares that characteristic. I mention that at the start by way of an apology to anyone who feels I’m simply regurgitating something they have already said; I have read some other views on this already, and agree with a good deal of them. I include at the end of this post some links to posts with which I (at least partly) agree.

So.

Moving Forward

The first thing is to say that the party needs, quite quickly, to establish that it can build from here and ensure that the media doesn’t simply erase us from the picture, leading to a loss of momentum and steady slide into irrelevance. Of course, frustrating experience as a party member has shown us all that trying to ensure that the media do anything is easier said than done, but we need to take every opportunity to stake out liberal territory and make the running on particular issues. I suspect that there will be opportunities, particularly in areas where we, and not Labour, have traditionally been the more consistent opponents of a particular Tory policy, such as the Snooper’s Charter and repeal of the Human Rights Act. This is especially true whilst the frame of “things the Tories can now do because the Lib Dems can’t stop them” is relevant and fresh in people’s minds. As the years of government roll on, this frame will be supplanted by a more general “things the government want to do, and the opposition say are bad”, and the default voices of opposition will be Labour ones.

Whilst the party doesn’t have a new leader, it will be all too tempting for Nick Clegg to be the voice which makes such arguments from opposition, but I think we need to resist this temptation. Nick’s brand over the last five years was clearly not a popular one, and I think one of the key errors we made as a party was to stubbornly present to the public a face who they had made very clear they were at best unenthusiastic about. That’s a mistake that I think Labour equally made, but I digress…

For that reason, I can understand Greg Mulholland’s impatience to have a new leader in place, but actually I do think a leadership contest is the key context in which a genuine post-mortem of the last five years can take place. Once a new leader is in place, whoever that is, any internal review will be bounded and steered somewhat by them. Therefore, I fall more on Mark Pack’s side the argument, and I’m happy that the FE’s timetable for the election of a new leader does leave the time for a certain amount of internal debate to take place, albeit not extensive.

Leadership

For what it’s worth, I tend to agree with Greg’s assertion that the party would do best to move on and heal the sense of betrayal over tuition fees by electing a leader who did keep his pledge. I also agree with Jennie that we need to “get rid of the stupid managerial centrism and go back to being actual liberals and democrats now“, and David Boyle’s view that “the trauma of coalition moulded the party into a deeply pragmatic force, provided them with the dullest manifesto in political history“.

Whilst I can’t especially prove it right now, I think one of the core reasons for the softness of our vote on Thursday was that we weren’t presenting, at least nationally, much of a concrete sense of who we were or why people should vote for us. Tactical calculations about how best to influence the makeup of a government evidently weren’t what the public were looking for in a decision on how to vote – especially from a leader who had demonstrated that he was prepared to compromise on almost anything in the pursuit of the more grown up, consensual politics that he believed in.

Before the 2010 election, what people liked about Clegg was that he was a good communicator, and he had a spiky Liberal instinct that led to him promise, for instance, that he would rather go to jail than carry an ID card. I still think those qualities are valuable, but I suspect Clegg’s spiky liberalism was in reality an extension of his communication skills – a calculated position which suited him at the time. We later saw that, faced with the first draft of the Snooper’s Charter, Clegg and his circle in government initially didn’t see much wrong with the proposals, only hardening their line in response to the immediate reaction it provoked in the wider party.

So in this leadership election, I will be looking for a leader who abandons the definition of our party in reference to the positions of the other two, and focuses on giving the voting public a clear understanding of their brand of liberalism. I will be looking for a leader who gives the impression of having a political philosophy of his own, not a series of negotiating positions. And I will be looking for a leader whose instinct is to listen to the party, not to manage them.

In short, I’m not saying that I’m definitely voting for Farron, but I am saying that any other candidate is going to have an uphill struggle to convince me that they are a better fit for the criteria above.

Unity-Shmunity

I am usually instinctively suspicious of calls for unity. That it became one of our campaign slogans in the last couple of weeks now seems to be almost universally agreed as a mis-step, and yet some people have still been calling for unity and being terribly nice to each other in the wake of the result. I think I hold a middle ground here, but I must say my sympathies are more on the Alix Mortimer side of this one. Obviously a circular firing squad is counter-productive, but in the wake of a result like Thursday’s, I think we do need to be painfully honest with ourselves as a party. As ever, the secret lies in criticising actions taken and decisions made, but trying not to impugn the motivations and character of the people involved, I suppose.

Hitting the Reset Switch

Of course, for a working political party, there is never any such thing as down-time. We still have 8 MPs, 5 AMs, 5 MSPs, 1 MEP, 2257 Councillors, and so on. For the reasons I set out at the start of this post, it is vital that we don’t simply shut down for a few months of navel gazing.

BUT!

The party’s current situation does call for some kind of reboot, and this is the closest thing to a suitable time to remake the party as we are likely to ever have, so we might as well grasp the opportunity for a genuine root-and-branch remodelling of the party. Not so much of its policies, as its internal structures. One of the less controversial statements to make about the federal Lib Dem party in recent years is that its interal structures are over-complicated and secretive. The Morrisey Report into the party’s processes and structures highlighted this:

An organogram of the Lib Dems internal organisation.

An organogram of the Lib Dems internal organisation.

The arguments over whether all of these bodies are really necessary are complex, and in many cases, if we were to sit down with a blank sheet of paper and start from the first principles of democracy, accountability and efficiency, we might well end up reinventing some of the above. But the point is, some of it we wouldn’t. Now is a great time to undertake that exercise. For that reason, I completely agree with Jennie’s call for a constitutional convention at Autumn Conference (and see the comments to that post for some interesting discussion as to how to go about it).

Campaigning

Of course, the party’s internal structures aren’t the only thing which need a review. There will inevitably be lessons to be learned from the campaigns of the last few years, particularly the general election. Now that we have freed ourselves from the need to keep our heads down and keep going whilst we were in government, we can be really honest with ourselves about the questions that need answering. A few years ago, in the thick of the coalition, Tim Farron gave a conference speech which has resonated for longer than most. For one thing, it was The Cockroach Speech (and by the way, go buy one of Sarah Brown’s fab t-shirts). But actually, more of it deserves to be remembered. In the speech, Tim called for “a renewal of the theory and practice of community politics”.

It was the right prescription, but perhaps the wrong timing. While we were on the treadmill of government, the party only had the mental space to take this on board superficially. Now, we need to renew our whole campaigning style. Not necessarily because what we have right now is wrong, but because it is associated with the Liberal Democrats of the last five years. Jennie’s post calls for a “rebrand”, which is a word which can provoke suspicion in some. The best rebrands flow on from genuine renewal of the underlying product. I suspect that renaming the party isn’t the answer, but rather rebuilding our modus operandi. The theory and practice of community politics is still very relevant, as Tim pointed out, and of course there is baby to be retained as we seek to indentify the bathwater.

But as The Theory and Practice of Community Politics itself argued, “[campaign] techniques are a means to an end. If they become an end in themselves, the ideas they were designed to promote will have been lost.” We don’t cease to be Liberal Democrats if we re-examine our campaign methods. If we were designing our campaigns from scratch today, what would they look like? Focus leaflets and fakey newspapers? Well, maybe, but let’s ask the questions. In particular, we need to actually properly embed the advances that technology has ennabled us to make.

Connect is a wonderful tool, but currently we spend a lot of time trying to make it fit around our established ways of doing things, rather than renewing our established ways of doing things to take full advantage of the opportunities it offers. Too many of our canvassers are unaware of its underlying mechanics and therefore fill in canvass cards as though the data was destined for EARS still. Having spent the last few months doing quite a bit of data entry in a target seat, I could count the number of tags I applied to people in Connect that might have actually been useful to Operation Manatee (at least in the way that its operation has been described) on the fingers of one hand. In part, that’s also because there are pretty limited ways of recording the nature of conversations which have been had on doorsteps. MiniVAN has also been depressingly under-exploited so far.

I’ve just seen Anders’s post, which shares some ground with the above, but I hadn’t seen it when I wrote this, honest! I’ve actually just deleted a section about updating our understanding of “communities” as more than just geographical, because Anders seems to have been thinking along much the same lines as me, and expressed it rather better than I had! I’d also like to add that whilst I sympathise with his trying to defend the party’s structures as being less complex than the diagram I quoted above would suggest, I still think it is revealing that someone who presumably sat down to try to make a clear and simple representation of how the party works apparently couldn’t do better than that diagram!

Conference

Lastly, I think it’s worth saying that the sovereignty of conference as a policy-setting body needs to be re-embedded as part of the consitutional renewal mentioned above. The best of the party’s achievements over the last five years have come off the back of policy which came from conference, and the party’s uniquely ground-up policy structure. We are happy to celebrate the wisdom of conference when it suits the leadership. When conference reps clearly wished to use conference to kick the leadership (on the Health and Social Care Act, Bedroom Tax, etc.), they were generally also right with hindsight, and the leadership wrong. And yet, too often during the last five years, it has felt like attempts by party members to use conference to sound the alarm on impending disasters were being, if not suppressed, then managed. Avoiding embarassment for the leader at conference, or respecting “the two year rule” should not be more important than ennabling the expression of the concerns of a good many people.

Conclusion

As Liberals, we all love a bit of navel-gazing and agonising about process, and many of us have learned to try to control that urge. But sometimes, that kind of renewal is exactly what is needed. It’s notable that there appears to be a good deal of consensus around some of this in the posts which I’ll be linking below, which is encouraging. I’ll be reading further posts with interest, and hoping to hear some engagement with this discussion from the leadership candidates.

Links:

Jennie Rigg’s Where Do We Go From Here?

Alix Mortimer’s Five things the Lib Dems should do now that nobody else has suggested

David Howarth’s Thoughts on the Way Forward

Greg Mulholland’s Tweets, particularly this one

Mark Pack’s The Liberal Democrats need a leadership contest, not a coronation

David Boyle’s My traumatised Liberal Democrat party must rediscover its radical heart

Anders Hanson’s Where We Go From Here

Nick Barlow’s Thoughts on the Lib Dems: Past, present and (hopefully) future

What My Vote Achieved

…in the Lib Dem internal elections (of course!).
I won’t bore you with a full rundown of where all my prefs went, but my first prefs were allocated as follows:
Fed. Executive: Caron Lindsay

Fed. Policy Comm.: Richard Flowers

Fed. Conference Comm.: Zoe O’Connell

International Relations Comm.: Nasser Butt

ELDR Delegation: Aliss Moss

 

And here is what my votes ended up supporting:

 

Fed. Executive: Caron Lindsay elected

Fed. Policy Comm.: Gareth Epps elected

Fed. Conference Comm.: Justine McGuinness elected

International Relations Comm.: Gordon Lishman elected

ELDR Delegation: Aliss Moss elected

 

So, not quite what I most wanted, but thanks to STV I can point to someone on each of the committees, and say “I helped put them there.”

Which is pretty nifty.

Conference Accreditation: What do FE Candidates Think?

Jennie Rigg has been doing some great work recently, posing questions to candidates for FPC and FCC in the upcoming Lib Dem internal elections. In an effort to compliment her efforts, I wanted to plug one of the gaps which this has left, however. In the light of Jon Ball’s response to Jennie’s question on police accreditation for conference-goers, it seems that it might well be very relevant to know what candidates for FE think about the subject, as well as candidates for FCC.

I have therefore emailed (or failing that, tweeted) as many of the candidates as I could find contact details for, either from within their statements for the election to FE, or via a quick Google. I did not include those who have already been asked to give their views as part of their responses to Jennie, as a couple of people who are also standing for FCC have been. You can see the responses which I received below.

For the sake of transparency, here is the specific email they were responding to (except for the ones who replied to a tweet, which was necessarily shorter!):

Dear all,

I realise you possibly weren’t expecting to field many questions on this subject in the course of standing for FE, but since Federal Appeals Panel has (apparently) ruled that police accreditation for federal conference is an FE matter, not FCC, I’m afraid I’d like to ask you about it! Apologies if I’ve missed a previous pronouncement of yours on the subject.

Could you tell me what your position on accreditation is?

Many thanks,
Andy Hinton
(Voting Rep)

Robert Adamson:
-Has responded to Jennie here.

Qassim Afzal:
-Not emailed, since he will already have had the opportunity to respond to Jennie.

Elaine Bagshaw:
Tweeted back:

It needs to be evidence-based and to date I haven’t seen any that’s justified the policy.

Prue Bray:

In an ideal world accreditation would not be necessary. However, we don’t have an ideal world, so it is necessary. It is not realistic to suppose we could have a conference without it, because we wouldn’t get insurance and the venues wouldn’t take us. If someone could prove that is not true it would be great. But I think if they could prove it, they would have done so already, given the amount of upset accreditation has caused.

There are some issues for people who for whatever reason have not always had the same identity (or indeed, to a lesser extent, for people who have lives which don’t fit having passports or national insurance numbers or stable addresses) At the moment, this is being dealt with by a fudge involving a couple of people reviewing applications on a case by case basis. It relies on individuals knowing that the fudge exists, and trusting it. That is not brilliant. If you have a better idea, I’d be prepared to listen.

I don’t like accreditation, but you can’t always have what you want. Any ideas for improving it?

Kristin Castle:
-No reply at this time.

Daisy Cooper:

In short, I’m opposed to conference accreditation. There is no evidence that accreditation makes people any safer. It is possible to enter Parliament, and major international events (such as the Olympics) and venues, with nothing more than an airport style security check at the door – something which we already have at conference.

Moreover, I think that the way the debate has been framed is unhelpful. There is a suggestion that insurance is not possible without accreditation, so no accreditation means no insurance.

I simply don’t believe this. If there are additional security concerns now that our party is in government, then there is a case for additional security measures, but these need not infringe upon our civil liberties. The insurance company could request additional scanners, increasing the distance between the scanners and the venue, and/or request additional security sweeps of the venue(s) in the preceding days of and during the conference itself. These kinds of measures would probably be more effective anyway!

Sean Davey:
-No reply at this time.

Jonathan Davies:

I have been a member of FFAC for the last four years, and so participated in FFAC’s decision to agree accreditation, which was then also agreed by FE.

FFAC did not call in this matter or seek to impose a decision on the Conference Committee. FFAC was told that whilst FCC considered that accreditation was unacceptable, FCC recognised given the potential issues for the party and the FFAC’s responsibility for financial issues, it was not a decision that FCC could take. A buck seemed to be being passed.

The Party has a duty to take reasonable care for the Health and Safety of its staff and the staff of many other organisations who attend conference. Faced with strong advice from the police that accreditation was a necessary precaution, I felt it would be very difficult, and in breach of the Party’s health and safety duties, not to accept that advice. Given the threat level to the high profile autumn conference, there’s an obvious strong security benefit in knowing the identity of everyone coming within the security cordon.

Ramesh Dewan:

All my Liberal values make me come out against accreditation, particularly because I am not aware of any evidence that tells me that accreditation makes us safer.

Sue Doughty:

My answer below is in a personal capacity.

The matter was referred to the Federal Finance and Administration Committee which is a sub committee of FE. Accordingly when they had reviewed the situation it then went to FE for acceptance.

I am already familiar with the requirements for visitors to government offices and indeed for meetings there now you need to be pre booked. This is based on an agreed security risk and I believe that as members of the government we have found ourselves in a position of accepting joint responsibility for our foreign policy even if it may not be our Lib Dem policy. I have also, in a professional capacity, visited the Labour party conference when they were in office and had to go through facial recognition. Given that I was representing an organisation campaigning on environmental issues my responsibility was to attend specific meetings in order to make the case with senior party members.

In Guildford I have strongly campaigned against the unnecessary collection of personal information, in particular children’s thumb prints used to authorise payments for school meals and library withdrawals.

I do believe that the party has a corporate responsibility to assess all risk to members attending conference – not only on a security basis, but the more usual risks – fire, health and safety etc and to ensure that we meet reasonable recommendations.

Regarding accreditation I am satisfied that although the police have access to the names of applicants for conference registration where a question has arisen about a particular individual, this has been referred to the party president and then enquiries are made locally to identify whether there is any supporting evidence which might be of concern. The final decision lies with the party and not with the police. In practice this is more likely to result in additional information being provided which supports the application going forward. Of course there are sometimes queries about change of name (for example an individual in a witness protection programme or escaping a violent past) or even gender which could be inconsistent with past information. The party has put in place separate procedures so that information provided is not held post registration.

I have not been able to ascertain how many, if any, people have been prevented from attending conference due to the accreditation process and of course would like to hear of any such cases from either people who have had their applications refused on the basis of security recommendations or who have had sufficient concerns that they have chosen not to apply for registration at conference. I am not aware of any.

In closing, I recognise that provision of such information is of deep concern to Liberal Democrats but as a member of the Federal Executive I also share a corporate responsibility for the safety and security of all members, staff and visitors. I feel that the arrangements at present are strong in terms of security, but the right balance has been made in leaving the final decision about individual registrations with the party and not with the police.

Neville Farmer:

In principle, I hate any “big brother” intrusion on the party but I’m also aware of the police concerns and think we must be realistic about finding a working compromise. I also believe that if we are to suffer this intrusion, it could be handled with more respect and less bureaucracy.

I accept the need for a level of accreditation but this should certainly not contravene our own Liberal Democrat principles as it clearly did there.It was clear at the Birmingham conference last year, that the police had gone far too far in its demands and the party had acquiesced too easily. Since then, things seem to have improved but I was very unhappy with the party’s responses to complaints at the time and I would seek to change that culture if elected.

There are a few lines in the sand that should not be crossed…

It is absolutely unacceptable for the police to hold onto data beyond the conference.

Gender change or name change should never be a cause of denial of access.

The parameters the police use to recommend denial of access should be seriously re-considered if they have not been already.

These parameters should be made clear to the membership, so they can decide whether they wish to be put through it or not.

Jock Gallagher:

I was a BBC journalist covering the Tory’s 1984 conference in Brighton.
I’m afraid, therefore, I have little hesitation in accepting the need for additional checks on all
those attending our conference.
My liberal instincts are, in this instance, over-taken by a concern for all those attending the conference.

Sarah Green:
-No contact details, if you have any contact details for Sarah please let me know.

James Gurling:

I wasn’t aware of an FAP ruling on this issue – which is odd as I am also the FE rep on FCC. Perhaps Monday evening’s FE will shed some light on this matter – it is also a shame as I am a great supporter of the notion that FCC has responsibility for conference matters.

Whatever the case FE’s involvement in this matter came as a consequence of the profound financial risk that not having a conference, or being open to challenge after the fact, would have on the Party as a whole. In that regard the FE was certainly right to note the decision of the FFAC.

In true Lib Dem tradition, the very acceptable compromise arrived at by the Party President made sure the accreditation system as applied to both Tory and Labour conference goers was amended. This compromise ensured that there is review by Party appointees and made possible the exemption of certain categories of Lib Dem Party members from the accreditation process.

I voted for accreditation (with the caveats) in order to ensure conference registrations could start for Party members (commercial ones etc had already started) to minimise financial risk, with regard to police advice, safety of both guests and staff etc.

David Hall-Matthews:

On principle I believe that:
1) No-one outside the party should decide who comes to conference.
2) Those within the party who make decisions should be fully transparent about the decisions they make.
3) No-one should be obliged to reveal personal information unless it can be shown that there are security concerns.

Frank Hindle:

I don’t like the police accreditation requirement, but it is always difficult to ignore or go against police advice. I’m not currently on FE so haven’t seen the detailed reports that FE (presumably!) had before agreeing to police accreditation, but the explanation that the financial risks of not going along with accreditation are too great strikes me as plausible – for example, I don’t know exactly what the implications would be with the party’s insurance policies for conference, but I would think that our insurer’s would be very unhappy and at the very least hike up the premiums, and maybe refuse to insure. So, with regret, I think we are stuck with some sort of accreditation for now.

However, back in May when the FE agreed to accreditation for Brighton, I understand that there was a commitment to work with LGBT+ and others with particular concerns about accreditation. I don’t know how far this progressed and whether any exemption or alternative arrangements were implemented but I do think there should be some way of providing an alternative process for those with concerns about police accreditation. When looking at the impact of accreditation it is not enough to simply consider the number of conference reps where the police raised a concern, we also need to remember that the use of a police accreditation process may itself deter some members from even considering going to conference.

Not related to accreditation, but very relevant to party democracy, is the cost of going to conference, and I think more needs to be done to reduce this, and to enable a greater range of members to be involved in the party’s decision making.”

Antony Hook:
-No reply at this time.

Keith House:
-No reply at this time.

Susan Juned:
-No reply at this time.

Bill Le Breton:

Totally unnecessary and an illiberal intrusion on the workings of the Liberal Democrat ‘family’.

Happy to field any question you have.

I recall that Paddy always refused unnecessary security.

Caron Lindsay:

Briefly, I am totally opposed to accreditation which I think is both illiberal and unconstitutional.

There is no evidence accreditation would make anyone any safer & I believe that we would be able to obtain insurance.

As a member of the Federal Finance & Administration Committee (as Scottish party treasurer), I was the only person to vote against accreditation.

I could go on about this all day as I feel very strongly about it. However, I’ll give you the choice about whether you read more. This is a link to a blog post I wrote on the subject in April.

http://carons-musings.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/conference-accreditation-rears-its.html

You may be interested to know that our Scottish conference has as many Cabinet ministers as the Federal event with no accreditation.

Please feel free to come back to me if you have any further questions.

Gordon Lishman:

The FAP ruling and the FE discussion both seem to have passed me by, which is odd given that I haven’t missed a meeting.

I think there is a reasonable case, in terms of security  and insurance cover, for enabling a check.  I think that the Party botched the process, including safeguards and overall control.

I try not to make pronouncements, but I’m happy to comment.

Lembit Opik:
Tweeted back.

Joe Otten:

I believe the accreditation system is over the top for the party’s security requirements. It has been a significant obstacle for a number of people who are perfectly safe and entitled to attend. However I am not clear that this is a battle we can win.

There is a broader question here, that the police are used to being in the position that they can give ‘advice’ and the practical consequence of this is that the recipient of the advice has no choice. This is due to a combination of factors including insurance, and the policies of partner organisations – “we always follow police advice”.

This is more about people covering their backsides than getting the right security system for our conference.

Candy Piercy:

My position is that I voted in favour of accreditation because of the advice received by the FE accreditation was necessary in order to make sure conference could go ahead.

I was very much in favour of adopting additional safeguards that some individuals needed.

I believe the fundamental issue is that we have to make sure our conferences can go ahead successfully and safely.

I think it is now a good time to find out more about the background issues around conference accreditation and change/adjust this process depending on properly established facts.

If accreditation does prove necessary then we need to look again at how we can make sure that this is a fair process. If members are facing problems as a result of the accreditation process then we need to adapt it. Naturally LGBT (and any other relevant bodies) should be properly consulted about what needs to be done to safeguard individuals who may be put at risk by the process.

David Rendel:
-No reply at this time.

Jo Shaw:

My position, which I have had throughout, is that I want Conference to go ahead. The advice we have had from the police is that accreditation is needed for the autumn conference and we have also been told that if we refuse to comply with the police recommendations that might invalidate our insurance or mean that venues would refuse to host us. The police also require security checks to be made of all staff at conference venues, and all attendees who are not party members. It would seem deeply unfair if party members could claim special treatment (ie avoid accreditation) because of being members.

Of course this is deeply unsatisfactory, particularly because of the issues for some trans members who object to accreditation on grounds of personal safety. The measures that have been put in place for some trans members have not been enough and we need to do more to make sure members’ safety is not jeopardised through the accreditation process. However I am clear that I am not prepared to countenance Conference not going ahead, or exposing the party to levels of financial risk, and therefore I have accepted accreditation in the past.

The difficulty we face is the illogical arguments (unchanged) put forward by the police. Why is it we need accreditation for autumn, but not for spring, for example? As yet there does not seem to be any answer to this question from the police.

Adrian Smith:

Not having been on FCC or FE before, my experience of this has largely been from a distance.

You can correct me if I am wrong, but the situation as I understand it is that Autumn conference is subject to full Police accreditation whereas Spring is not, and the reason appears to be because the Home Office will meet the cost of doing so for Autumn but not spring.

The problem with full accreditation is that some delegates find it deeply invasive with regard to their sexuality and gender, and many others simply find it incompatible with liberal values.

In addition, GMP were not exactly a model of efficiency the first time round, though I gather it was better this time.

Have I got that right?

I’m not sure there is an easy solution, because I can understand the arguments for both sides – what I think is absolutely ludicrous is having one set of rules for one conference and one for another, and that I think needs to be addressed first – it arguably endangers Spring conference goers as it is.

Beyond that I would need to acquaint myself more fully with the facts of the problem, though I would always advocate taking a very tough line with the police and home office.

John Smithson:
-No contact details, if you have any contact details for John please let me know.

Tom Stubbs:
-No reply at this time.

Martin Tod:

I haven’t been heavily involved in this issue, but one of the things that has surprised me about the whole discussion on accreditation is how anecdotal the evidence appears to be in support of the restrictions.

I can’t believe it would be that hard to:

Get the Police request in writing – and any rules, guidance or policy used to justify it
Get the specific reaction of the venue and/or the specific terms of booking – again – in writing
Get the specific reaction of our insurers (and possibly the venue’s insurers) – also in writing

Of course, it is vital that Conference goes ahead – we wouldn’t want to jeopardise it to prove a point – but creating extra bureaucracy and intruding on people’s privacy should not be done unless there is a really clear evidence base to show that such steps are necessary and proportionate. I’ve not seen such evidence to date.

Peter Tyzack:

I have seen things about ‘accreditation’, and have yet to really understand what this issue, in particular, is. It would be nice to be able to turn up at the conference doors, show your membership card and walk in, or even have the conference open to the public, but then reality has to kick in.  As the security guy said ‘the terrorist only has to get lucky once in order to wreak havoc, we have to remain vigilant at all times to stop them getting lucky’.

So my answer in relation to generic security, is that it must be realistic and proportionate, reasonable and workable.  It should be no more than the minimum that is needed to protect us from the perceived risk.
In amongst that are personal and individual sensitivities, which need to be accommodated.  But where those individuals form a small part of the whole their concerns should be dealt with on a personal case basis.

Whilst I know that concerns have been raised, perhaps I have been less bothered about understanding, simply because I have not had any problem myself, and have not been involved in having to make any decision about the matter.  We elected a committee to run the Conference and as Reps we should have faith in their ability to do so.  Yes, the FE take responsibility over FCC, and I would assume that they asked the relevant questions to satisfy themselves that security matters had been adequately dealt with.  But, as an ordinary Rep coming and going I have accepted the security regime, as it has evolved, as being what those, in a better position to know than me, felt to be appropriate.

Having been a PPC, and having been at events with Nick when his close protection team were in evidence, I have been quietly impressed by their discreet and coordinated efficiency.  The big expense of that provision is not for fun, nor to make Nick feel important.  The point is, that we are in Govt, and whilst our Leader and his fellow ministers are known to us as normal people, with whom we are able to work and have contact with, they are now public figures who can attract the wrong sort of attention, if not from terrorists or political extremists, from the lunatic who just wants his moment of infamy, or whatever he just wants.

The big difference comes, if you decide to elect me to the FE, what I do then.  In that event, I first want to know what my powers duty and remit are as a member of the FE(and, as an aside, to get the role more clearly defined than the woolly remit FE currently has!).  But when coming to make a decision about or to scrutinise the work being done by others on our behalf, I shall undertake to gain a full understanding of the issues and any opposing points of view before forming a judgement.

I give you that statement as a solemn undertaking, as that is how I act when taking on a new role… determine exactly what the job is, and then do it to the best of my ability.  ‘Wherever a decision is to be taken it must be taken objectively, on the basis of facts; where the facts are inadequate, go out for more information or consultation; where a choice is to be made, do so democratically; and throughout, remember on who’s behalf you serve.’

Thanks for your question, and for making me think it through.  If I am elected, please come back to me.

Gerald Vernon-Jackson:
-No reply at this time.

Erlend Watson:

I have a feeling that my answer will not win votes but I ought to reply.

Initially the FCC mishandled the accreditation issue most specifically over identity issues ( I note transgender and spouse battering as the main ones).

I believe those to be satisfactorily settled now even if trust remains weak.

On the issue of who has the final say it remains with the party.

So I think the current position more or less OK.

I do for the record think it is stupid for the FAP to have passed this to the FE. Any issue including policy could have financial implications. But the constitution says the FCC decides about conference so responsibility belongs there.

Chris White:

I believe it is a necessary step with more than adequate safeguards built in to protect those who might be discriminated against. We have a duty to those who are not party members at conference and the idea that a conference could take place without it does not bear even distant scrutiny.

I have spoken on this matter at conference.

Sir David Williams:
-No contact details, if you have any contact details for Sir David please let me know.

Snooping Proposals

It’s not often that I feel actively obliged to blog about something nowadays. I turn up to conference and vote in the ways I think best, but for the most part, I don’t claim to know how best to navigate the challenges of coalition and apart from a few headline issues like the NHS I’ve been content to leave our ministers to get on with it. It’s not that I’ve been ardently in support of everything the government has done, but on the basis of “if you haven’t got anything nice to say…” I’ve mostly let them get on with it. After all, these are people who I was happy to campaign for before the election, and when they ask me to believe that behind closed doors they are still campaigning for the things our party believes in, I feel I owe them at least some benefit of the doubt.

But.

You knew there was going to be a but, didn’t you?

But I am a liberal first and a Liberal second, and I don’t believe that benefit of the doubt is the same thing as blind faith. If it stops looking to me like our ministers and our leadership deserve the benefit of the doubt, I’m not just going to soldier on.

The recent news reports about potential new extensions of the (already pretty illiberal) RIPA surveillance powers were worrying, and I didn’t entirely share Simon McGrath’s apparent faith in the coalition government, but I took his point and waited to hear a response from the party, or some more details about what was actually proposed.

Today, as the party leadership’s own take on things emerges, I feel I have enough information to go on.

As many other very sensible and considerably more prestigious bloggers than myself have already made clear, this is not an issue like the NHS, where it might have been argued that our 2010 manifesto supported something a bit like the reforms being introduced if you squinted a bit. This is not an issue like tuition fees, where we had conceded before we even began by signing the coalition agreement. This is an issue which is at the core of our party’s beliefs, purports to be at the core of the coalition’s beliefs, and which has so far attracted a pretty unanimous response from all over the customary spectrum of opinion within the party.

I would like to put on record that I join them in condemning the proposals. The technical sleight-of-hand involved in claiming that the government is only interested in communications data, not content, with these proposals, has been covered well elsewhere (although I can’t remember where I read it right now, so no link, sorry – any links in the comments gratefully received). The idea that we weren’t all that keen on RIPA when it came in, but now apparently think it’s fine to want to extend the same system to other media, is absurd. The fact that the party is already lining up a carefully crafted “rebellion”, followed no doubt by suitable “safeguards”, to make a carefully drawn (but nonetheless phoney) distinction between content and communication data so that we can wheel out the “yes this is a bit evil, but not as evil as what Evil Labour tried to do” line is depressing.

This is surely a Red Line issue for the party. It certainly is for me. And let me make this absolutely clear: I have no intention of leaving this party any time soon. But if its parliamentarians and leaders look to me like they’ve forgotten what they went into politics for, I will have no hesitation in calling for them to leave it.

Please, folks. Show me you still deserve the benefit of the doubt.

#ldconf, the NHS Bill, and Where The Leadership Stands Now

This weekend has certainly been interesting. For the record, I’m relatively pleased with the outcome of the votes at conference on the NHS bill this weekend. It is one of a whole range of possibilities about what might have happened, and we don’t fully know what the fallout will be yet. No, technically, we have not given any particularly clear instruction to our parliamentarians on how to vote. And yes, technically, the amended form of “The Shirley Williams Motion” (ahem) says almost nothing of any consequence. But since conference has never been in the business of telling our parliamentarians how to vote, that’s probably OK. The act of deleting the clause which asked our parliamentarians to vote for the bill at 3rd reading seems to have sent the right message to the media.

Did Conference Achieve the Right Outcome?

In any case, what the best outcome for conference would have been is a rather complex question. It’s complex because there are a number of objectives which in an ideal world would all be achieved:

1. Kill the Health and Social Care (HSC) Bill.

2. …but leave open the possibility of implementing some of the uncontroversial elements of the plans, like joining up the delivery of health care, social care and public health.

3. Preserve the coalition government, and the goodwill of our coalition partners within it (tricky to reconcile with point 1!).

4. Preserve the sovereignty, democracy and credibility of conference as a policy-making body.

How best to achieve a balance between these objectives, and which ones are more important, is not a straightforward question. For instance, had we passed the motion calling for the withdrawal of the bill, only to find that it made not the slightest difference to the progress of the bill, conference (and by extension the party) would have been utterly emasculated. Had we passed the withdrawal motion and subsequently seen the withdrawal of the bill, I’d be pretty happy, but I would be concerned that the Tories would be on the lookout for some piece of Lib Dem-favoured policy which they could hole below the waterline in retaliation. As it is, we’ve stopped short of passing a (possibly unenforceable) motion calling on our peers and MPs to vote against the bill, but made it fairly clear, in the balance of speeches this morning and in the result of the vote, that we are really not comfortable with this bill and would rather it died. If the bill subsequently does die, the Tories can’t lay the blame squarely at our feet, but we have nevertheless contributed to the momentum of the anti-bill forces. Somehow I don’t think we’ve heard the last of this row yet. So, whilst I was willing to support the Withdrawal motion in the Emergency Motions Ballot, I don’t think it is by any means straightforwardly obvious that what happened today will not have better outcomes than that would have had.

The above may sound rather slippery, or seem to display a warped sense of priorities. How can I put the party and the stability of the government alongside protecting the NHS? I must be some kind of traitor, no? Well, if I believed much of the hyperbole about the effects of this bill, then yes, I’d agree, the reasoning I’ve laid out above would be disgraceful. But I have to say that although I don’t support the HSC Bill and want it dropped, I really don’t buy the idea that it’s going to lead to the end of a comprehensive, free NHS in the way that some of the anti-bill folks have been suggesting. Whilst good impartial information on this issue is scarce, from what I’ve been able to make out this is not a reasonable expectation to have of the effects of the bill. Nor do I think it will result in the wholesale privatisation of the NHS. I just don’t happen to think it’s a good enough revision of the model for running the NHS to justify the disruption which the re-organisation will cause.

 

What Is Actually Wrong With The HSC Bill?

I believe the use of private providers within the NHS can be destabilising to the viablity of NHS services, and that it has led to an ever more fragmented service for the last 10 years or more. I do not like the one-size-fits-all way that the “choice” – or competition, as it is more honestly known – agenda has been clumsily grafted onto the NHS, but we should not pretend that this bill introduces that agenda, or that without this bill that agenda would not continue to drive much of the way the NHS is run. What this bill does do, so far as I can see, is transfer who is doing the commissioning from PCTs to CCGs, and remove some brakes on Foundation Trusts’ involvement in the private sector. I’m not saying that isn’t problematic*, but at root the stuff I most dislike about the Lansley vision for the NHS is not actually new. Marketisation and competition has been the dominant idea behind NHS reform throughout Labour’s time in office. If those of us who are deeply uncomfortable with it don’t like it, we need a coherent vision of our own. Meanwhile, I am satisfied that my party’s representatives in the Lords have secured some valuable safeguards, such that in some ways this might be an improvement on the 2006 Act which Labour left us.

So what is the problem? The problem is, in other ways, it’s worse than the 2006 act, and in any case the reorganisation of the NHS is simply massively unhelpful at a time when the NHS is already under budgetary pressure. The problem is that the apparent safeguards about conflicts of interest for CCGs (and any private companies which they might look to enlist in support of their commissioning work) over the services they commission have barely scratched the surface. The problem is that setting tariffs which reflect the “clinical complexity” of work does not prevent “cherry-picking”, it merely quantifies it. The problem is that there are simply too many doubts about this bill, and too many people in the medical professions themselves who oppose it. It is not a very good idea, and it will not improve the NHS, in my estimation. There are just too many pitfalls.

But let’s be honest. It is not going to result in everyone having to get private medical insurance. It is not going to mean that the NHS is privatised. It is not a “US style” health system. And the people who are shrieking hysterically that it is all of these things are doing their case no favours. And since I don’t buy the apocalyptic visions of what will happen if the bill passes, I am prepared to entertain the possibility that it will pass, and I don’t think that every single other one of the objectives I listed above is worth sacrificing because we might – might – be able to stop it.

*”Problematic” might be the understatement of the year if it turns out that this shift does, in fact, lay the commissioning process open to all sorts of legal challenge by the private sector when they don’t like the outcome of a tendering process. This is one area in which I genuinely have no idea who is right, both because I have read contradictory advice from different respectable sources, but also because the HSC Bill is such a moving target, with many ammendments still only existing in potentia as undertakings by the government.

The State of the Party and of the Leadership

So, what of the way that the leadership behaved in this whole matter? Well, I think it’s pretty undeniable that the tactics of using Shirley Williams in the way they did displayed some serious desperation. The stony silences during the Q&A session with Cleggy during the questions about the NHS were telling, as was the fact that during his speech today he didn’t feel confident in trying to make us clap anything about the HSC bill stronger than thanking Shirley for her work on it. It is unfortunate that at a time when the shine was always going to be coming off Nick, as the party started to grow tired of the more unpalatable elements of coalition, he is having to use up extra capital with members (and make no mistake, that’s what he’s doing, burning through it at quite a rate at the moment) to sell something to us which wasn’t even in the coalition agreement, and which actually directly contradicts it (“no top-down reorganisations…” may be over-familiar by now, but it’s still worth remembering: this is a direct breach of the coalition agreement).

To see Clegg at conference nowadays, it’s pretty clear that he’s an increasingly remote figure in the party. That’s not to say he can’t recover, but I’m sure someone with the emotional intelligence that Nick has cannot have failed to notice that he is not trading from a position of strength at conference these days.

So what can the leadership do about the growing gulf with the wider membership of the party? Well, in the immediate terms of the HSC Bill, not much, other than hope that the Tories find the guts to kill a bill that many of them are clearly uneasy about, and which has been an unmitigated disaster for them in terms of re-toxifying their brand on the NHS. But in terms of preventing this from happening again, I think it’s worth considering how they can bring the party along with them on issues which fall outside of the coalition agreement. Let’s ignore for a moment that the HSC Bill contradicts the agreement, what if it was just a “matter arising” which is not adressed by the agreement? Currently the procedure, we are told, is that it goes to the “Coalition Committee”. For some issues, that’s fine. But I would argue that on an issue as large as reforming the NHS, they really should have moved to get conference on side before pressing ahead with the reforms, in the same way they did with the coalition agreement itself. This would, of course, have strengthened their hand in rejecting excessive Tory demands, on the grounds that they couldn’t get them past conference.

One could argue that the leadership tried to do just this with the original Burstow motion at conference last spring. However, that doesn’t quite hold water. Burstow’s motion being selected instead of the anti-bill motion it was competing with made it virtually impossible for conference to reject the bill outright. Since we’re not allowed to move wrecking ammendments at conference, as soon as Burstow’s motion was on the agenda we could do nothing stronger than reject his motion outright. That’s fine, but it wouldn’t have stopped anything, since doing so doesn’t say anything definitive – defeating a motion is the absence of a policy, not a decisive policy against. The likely outcome would have been that the government plowed on regardless. In the event, the people who were concerned about the bill went for a more constructive approach, moving an ammendment which listed the things they disliked about the HSC Bill (then White Paper). This attempt to be constructive has since been thrown back in their face; the fact that they didn’t delete the first sentence of Burstow’s motion (“conference welcomes much of [the white paper]”) has since been used to suggest that they were actually endorsing the Lansley plan, with a few quibbles. Yes, seriously.

Meanwhile, since conference doesn’t, by convention, discuss the same issue twice in two consecutive conferences, the fact that a motion had been discussed at the spring conference about the white paper meant that conference could not react to the bill as it became draft legislation by moving any motion at all at autumn conference – the attempt to suspend standing orders didn’t get the two thirds majority it needed. By the time this year’s spring conference rolled around it was almost too late to stop the bill, but nonetheless the leadership still clearly feared the embarassment of the withdrawal motion passing enough to go to the desperate lengths of wheeling out Shirley’s name, as I’ve already mentioned. In this light, the leadership’s (and FCC’s) behaviour at successive conferences looks less like an attempt to seek conference’s blessing for the bill in any meaningful way, and more like an attempt to prevent conference from making any decisive and timely call for the bill to be dropped.

The sad thing about this whole process is that it seems to have forgotten what we know about the strengths of our democratic structures. Repeatedly in David Laws’s book about the formation of the coalition, it is mentioned explicitly that the threat of having to get something past the membership strengthened our negotiating position. A strong, independent minded conference is one of the key buffers we have against Tory domination of the coalition. And yet for whatever reason, the leadership of this party seems to have been willing to actively frustrate members’ attempts to intervene in the case of the NHS bill. Ultimately, the result is that a bill which is now an albatross around the government’s neck has been allowed to progress past the point when it could have been quietly sidelined.

What could the leadership do about it? They could stop playing the kind of pathetic procedural games at conference which would make a student union trot blush.

Predictions for 2012

Not that they’re likely to display any dazzling powers of prediction, but…

1. The coalition will survive in tact, despite a few unhelpful interventions from prominent figures in the Lib Dem parliamentary party, and continued howls of frustration from the Tory right.

2. Chris Huhne will survive the fallout from the allegations about speeding in 2003, without having to resign, but will be substantially weakened.

3. Vince Cable will still be a member of the cabinet by the end of the year.

4. Ed Miliband will find that the disloyal mutterings from some of his frontbench colleagues become a serious problem. Ed Balls will not be unconnected to this!

5. Ken Clarke will be retired from the cabinet in a reshuffle that will see David Laws return to government.

6. Barack Obama will beat Ron Paul in the US Presidential Race, in a much closer result than many analysts predict when Paul is nominated.

7. The Euro will finish the year in a much stronger position than it started it.

8. UK economic growth will continue to be sluggish, but will not fall back into recession.

9. A major UK newspaper will close or merge with a rival.

10. The Higgs Boson will officially be declared to be discovered, and, rather boringly, the details will utterly fail to significantly challenge the Standard Model.

See you back here this time next year for the results!

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