Sunday, September 19th, 2010 12:40 am
(Fair warning; these aren't going to be in-depth. I write relatively slowly for a blogger, and I'm likely to only get an hour here and there to do them.)

One of the 'Why I'm a Liberal Democrat' pieces that I didn't get around to writing was about Liberal Democrat Conference. I was going to write about several things, from singing The Land with a roomful of drunks at Glee Club, through the fact that one-minute interventions mean that anyone has a good chance of making a point on important debates, to the fact that Conference is the sovereign policy-making body of the Liberal Democrats, and all our parliamentarians and councillors are in principle answerable to it.

I may still write that post, but I was and am reluctant to do it until after this conference is over, because I'm not yet sure if this conference is going to be like the others. Being in government - albeit as part of a coalition - may change things. Obviously, we'll be under greater scrutiny, and security will be tighter, which won't just affect ease of getting into the venue but possibly also the mindset of the people in it. There may well be other, subtler, effects that I haven't thought of yet. We'll see.

Early signs are good, though. The first day at Conference felt very much like first days at Conferences past, and once you've got the initial 'so how do you think the coalition's going?' exchange out of the way, most people at it are behaving just as they always do. I've no idea how the outside world is getting this presented to them by the media, but within the Lib Dem Conference bubble, it's pretty much business as usual with a few moments of cautious and qualified self-congratulation about the few but significant Liberal policies the coalition has already achieved.

That's very much a first-glance assessment though. I'll let you know how I feel again on Wednesday.

In terms of business, the morning was taken up with the consultative sessions. These, for a Lib Dem activist interested in affecting policy, are one of the highlights of conference. At the consultative sessions, issues that the party wants to create policy on in the next couple of years are discussed in a room full of party members with an interest in that policy. Ideas from the consultative sessions are fed into the policy process and considered by the policy working group, and I've now been around long enough in the party to know that this actually happens. I've seen issues raised at a consultative session I attended appear a year or two later in the final policy paper.

This time, the session I attended was on Information Technology and Intellectual Property (clear print and plain text versions). This session was chaired - and chaired very well - by Julian Huppert MP, who was one of the co-authors of the emergency motion on the Digital Economy Bill that I spoke on back in March, and continues to lead the fight against the DE Act in government. The consultative session had a much broader remit, though, as you'll see if you read the paper, encompassing: IT policy in government, training and education, research, and commerce over the Internet among many other topics. My contribution to the session was to encourage the use of open data standards, but most people at the session contributed to one point or another, and the discussion drew on the varied expertise of many people in the room.

After lunch, the official opening of conference was followed by reports from various Lib Dem bodies: Federal Conference Committee (who run Conference), Federal Policy Committee (who run the policy-making process that brings policy to Conference to be voted on), Federal Finance and Administration Committee (who look after the money), the Campaign for Gender Balance, the Diversity Engagement Group and the European Parliamentary Party. These were largely uncontroversial. Interspersed with the reports were an item to raise the membership fee slightly (although the lowest rates stay unchanged), and two motions. The first of these called for a general National Defence Medal to be awarded to all Britain's Armed Service veterans; the second essentially aimed at making public servants accountable for procurement decisions they make, and barring them from having a financial interest in companies they procure from.

Again, all of these passed with little dissent; the status of policy motions passed at Conference with respect to the coalition is unclear, however. In principle, as this is now Lib Dem policy, our MPs now have an obligation to try to implement this in government. However, the agenda of the coalition government has largely been set out in the original coalition document written back in May, and for Lib Dem MPs to add to it may not be a straightforward procedure. That said, policies which the Conservatives are also likely to support (and both of these seem, on the face of it, to be such policies) may yet have legs.

Then came a short break, then the Conference Rally. This is often a slightly odd beast; outside the official timetable of the conference itself and therefore officially part of the Conference Fringe, it is usually the first sight of our leader, and a big media event designed to set the outward 'theme' of the conference. This year, it was to launch the campaign for the 'Yes!' vote in next year's Alternative Vote referendum and, therefore, was something close to the hearts of most attendees. Unfortunately, as anyone following my Twitter stream will know, I found it a lacklustre affair for the most part, with speakers who either failed to inspire (Pam Giddy and Keith Sharp), made an insulting remark about a 'seven foot tranny on stilts' (Martin Bell) or just plain seemed to have no aptitude for public speaking (Art Malik). Fortunately, a trio of Jo Swinson, Tim Farron and Nick Clegg did deliver a rousing end to the rally, with Tim doing an especially good job as a last-minute replacement for Charles Kennedy who had apparently messed up his train travel and wasn't arriving in time for the rally. Which is the sort of excuse that's so poor you really have to assume it's genuine, because otherwise they'd surely have made up something better.

Nick Clegg did well at the rally. I honestly wasn't sure how I'd react to hearing him speak - let alone others in the conference less happy with the coalition - because the recent press coverage has been so unrelenting in trying to paint him as a neo-Tory. I was pretty sure that wasn't true, but it's hard to keep the faith sometimes. Anyway, I have to report that he was comfortable, relaxed, showed every sign of still being very much a Liberal, and Conference gave him two standing ovations.

After dinner, we went to the LibDemVoice Blog Of The Year Awards (the BOTYs), where [personal profile] sashajwolf was up for an award for this pre-election post. She didn't win (Andrew Hickey's post did), but it was a very enjoyable event with many people I hadn't caught up with yet, including Charlotte Gore who was just there for the evening, having won Best non-Liberal Democrat politics blog. Charlotte left the party earlier this year, and had been nominated for several awards in previous years while still in the party, but this was her first win. Best Lib Dem blog was won, deservedly, by The Very Fluffy Diary of Millennium Dome, Elephant. If you're not reading him, you should.

And now it is bed time.