Thoughts From the Lib Dem Conference 47

The atmosphere of the conference was fascinating – most definitely not triumphalist, but sober and determined. There was a general view that we are heading for a period of unpopularity, but that we are doing the right thing in constructing a government.

Having paid attention to about 70% of the speeches, I am still of the view there was no earthly reason to have the deliberations in secret.

There was a general air of surprise at just how much the negotiating team had gained in policy commitment from the Tories, but combined with a strong undertow of distrust of many of the Tory figures in the government. Successive Lib Dem ministers promised they would make the Tories stick to their commitments.

I an increasingly of the view that in the negotiations the Lib Dems, being natural policy wonks, were concentrated on getting policies on paper, whereas the Tories were pragmatically unconcerned about what was on paper, but rather determined to get their people with their hands on all the main levers of power. There is a danger that Lib Dem ministers will be disconnected gears.

The conference passed a whole series of amendments reaffirming the Lib Dem commitment to policies including eventual abolition of tuition fees – and no increases – and PR. All the biggest cheers came for attacks on New Labour’s appalling civil liberties record. Simon Hughes made the best speech of the day.

The coaliton agreement was passed overhelmingly – I would estimate by about 1,000 to about 30. I voted for it, and was much comforted in that by the fact that old friends like Tony Greaves, Richard Moore, Alistair Carmichael and David Grace did so too.

Meeting old friends was the best bit of the day. It was great to talk with Richard Moore again – he was a key influence on the teenage Craig Murray, and his passion for human rights and democracy in the developing world has not been dimmed by his 79 years. He made a rousing speech, which included the observation that any “rainbow coalition” would have been in hock to the bigots of the DUP.

I spent a most enjoyable half hour sitting at the back of the hall with Alistair Carmichael, making silly jokes and giggling as though we were students again. It was hard to remember he is now the government deputy chief whip – and I think he relished the chance to forget it for a few minutes.

As always with party conferences, it was what you learnt in the bar that was by far the most interesting.

The negotiations woth the Tories on reform of the House of Lords are worrying. The Tories are insisting on “grandfather rights” – those now in the House of Lords, or a large percentage of them, will remain members until they die. Including those new Lords about to be appointed by the parties. They also propose that elected members of the House of Lords should serve a twelve year term. I’ll say that again, a twelve year term. Worryingly the Lib Dem negotiators seem inclined to go along with that ludicrous proposal.

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47 thoughts on “Thoughts From the Lib Dem Conference

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  • MDT

    The term length for the Lords should definitely be longer than for the Commons… is 12 years so unreasonable?

  • Alfred

    Why not something really democratic: like 250 folks picked out of a hat every two years to serve a total of five years, the first year under intensive instruction in every aspect of policy and procedure by a team of civil servants, the remaining four years as voting members of the upper house, which would in effect, be a House of Commons.

    To make it more workable, those selected would have to pass a simple test of numeracy, literacy, competence in the English language and general knowledge: about on the level of the driving test.

  • Rich Pitts

    You state “There was a general air of surprise at just how much the negotiating team had gained in policy commitment from the Tories” I think that goes across the entire Lib Dem world. If this really does produce sane government I will be very pleased.

    I have just emailed my local Con MP reminding her of NHS commitments made… lets see shall we…

  • Craig


    Because you would get a lot of Jane Goodys and Nick Ferraris, the largest group will be Sun or Express readers, and many of them would not want to do it.

    Romantic tosh. I have no problem with the Burkean idea that the representative is meant to be more talented and informed than those who choose them.

  • Parky

    Could it be the Tories are co-operating to jolly the LibDems along and bring them on-board while knowing full-well that they and their policies will be ditched over-board when the time is right.

    On Saturday BBC Parliament re-run the tapes of the Feb 1974 general election. Quite interesting as a piece of tv and social history, much more RP in use, addressing people as Mr or Mrs rather than on first name terms, presenters smoking cigars and cigarettes during the program, no fancy computer graphics and much more honest reporting and interviewing by Robin Day as this was before the days of spin and slick presentation and unbiased BBC slant. However even 36 years ago there was much discussion on changing the voting system to be fairer to the Liberals. Well here we are now in the 21st century and will still have a 19th century electoral system. I somehow get the feeling that change is not wanted by the establishment so don’t hold your breath waiting.

  • doug scorgie


    This marriage of convenience will end in tears; it is only a matter of time. Already we have Vince Cable pushed out of a role to oversee the banking sector. Then Andrew Lansey anounces “efficiency savings” in the NHS. These are, of course, cuts in the number of NHS staff. Then William Hague proclaims the Tory allegiance to the United States and raises the prospect of British military action against Iran, should the US call on us. The government has cancelled the £55 billion school building program while they toy with the idea of “free” schools. Cameron’s new Environment Minister, Caroline Spelman (and her husband) has business links to the agricultural lobby. This is only the first week of this ridiculous alliance.

    In view of your past experiences I find it hard to comprehend your naivety. There are none so blind as those that refuse to see.

  • Ed

    Whilst grandfathering in existing peers is unreasonable I actually think having long terms (I’d have gone for 10 years) is actually fairly good. The second chamber should not be a duplicate commons and needs to take a slightly bigger picture/above the fray view.

  • MJ

    Glad you had a good weekend but can’t help agreeing with most of what doug scorgie says. In a couple of months time the spending cuts will start to hit in all the wrong places, the wars and torture will continue and the Lib Dems, bound by the terms of the coalition and cabinet responsibility, will be powerless to do anything about it. What then?

    The most important thing now is what happens to the Labour Party. It has an opportunity to discard the neocon aberrations of the past few years, to rediscover its soul and core values and become an opposition worthy of the name. With Miliband as leader however we can forget all that.

  • glenn


    Maybe it’s just a dark night of the soul, a moment which brings questions such as those which Craig asked us a few months back. But I’m asking from a different perspective. Does my posting provide any value here, or am I merely providing fairly worthless commentary, or worse still, a discrediting taint to Mr. Murray’s blog, as some posters and bloggers are rather eager to imply?


  • alan campbell

    “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

  • writerman

    One of the things that’s been studiously ignored by the press in the UK is the social structure of this new parliament.

    Arguably this is the most unrepresentative UK parliament we’ve seen for over a century, that is if we think that parliament should be ‘representative’ at all.

    It’s as if time has been reversed in the UK. Parliment now contains a vast number of lawyers, millionaires, doctors, businessmen, journalists, people with elite educations… but virtually nobody from what used to be know as a working-class background, or who has only a semi-skilled or non-skilled background. About the only one I can think of is John Prescott!

    This bias towards the middle-class and the toffs, has always characterised the Tories and the Liberals; but what’s significant is that the last remnants of working-class representatives in the Labour Party have vanished as well, so that the social structure of Labour now mirrors that of the other parties as well.

    Personally, being rather “posh” myself, I have something close to disdain for the “class system”. But it is, at the least, interesting that parliament has been transformed over the last thirty years into a strikingly unrepresentative institution, a kind of exclusive club for a fraction of the UK’s population, with a very narrow social base.

    And the grotesque nature of the electoral system and then tell me how ‘democractic’ the system is!

  • ingo

    I have warned you not to join them before the election is over, now you are enthralled with the false notion that we can mimmick politics in a proportional representative manner, it can not work without giving voters something back.

    That little something is choice, the chance to vote for a proportional system in a referendum without being discouraged by those who undertake this exercise. It is absolutley essential that the coalition realises that they can not usurp us with their self serving foibles much longer.

    As Doug mentioned, how can we cut school budgets and contemplate going to war with Iran. How can we contemplate any cuts when the MOD, in debt to the tune of 36 billion is planning new military escapades which could set the whole middle east alight, nevermind the world beyond. Self serving with regards to their choice of electoral system, self serving with regards to the watered down finacial controls over the City and self serving when it comes to their priority, well that of the Conservative firends of Israel,in foreign policy goals.

    If the Lib Dems do not act as a balance to Conservative policies and unable to put a check on them, saying yes and amen to everyhting the Conservatives are doing, then this will mean the annihalation of the Lib dems, they’ll become subsumed, soon their support will become granted and the Conservatives will run loose with their own policies.

    Iran will be the rubicon, mark my words.

  • Parky

    It’s not democracy at all, just an illusion. The working classes don’t care about it as long as they get their comforts, pleasures and distractions.

    In addition to Puncher Prescott there is also Dennis Skinner who is pretty much old Labour but is alas a dieing breed. Maybe this could be rooted in Thatcher’s policies of disbanding manufacturing and the union power structures that surrounded it.

  • Craig


    The thought hadn’t crossed my mind ofr a second, so don’t worry about it.

  • Pete Jordan

    I’ve actually been arguing for a 15 year term (with 5-yearly elections of a third of the house), and for single terms. Election by STV ideally, but in any case by anything at all that’s not party lists, nor anything resembling them.

    The 2nd house should be detached from short-term public sentiment and media pressure as far as is possible, so it can act as a real counterbalance to the inevitably election-focused Commons.

  • ingo

    Pewte, 15 years is a tad too long, but if a coalition works well, then it is not out of the ordinary to re elect them.

    This coalition of necessity, as one may call it, makes no noises of cooperating with us, indeed they are already making policy that will indebt us further.

    This grudging support for a referendum, with no zeal or will behind it, shows us that we elected vested interest politicians, not representatives that will look after our concerns first and foremost. Politicians in with their own dogma and that of internationalists who see nothing wrong with going to war with Iran, for their own narrow reasons.

    So unless we get a chance to select PR, STV or AMS, I’m not fussy, with a good information campaign preceeding such an election, their words ring hollow.

    Half of the media and politicians do not know how proportional systems work, still they work in ireland and Scotland and new Zealand and and, it is only their self interest and that of lobby groups that are taking their interest, which stops them doing as decency demands they do.

    I for one would be really angry if we do not get a choice of systems to vote for in a referendum, it would be a useless and futile exercise which denigrates us akin to a dictatorship.

  • mike cobley

    Have to agree with Doug S – this coalition is a deal with the devil. I dont believe that the Tories are capable of changing their political DNA, but it is possible that they are pursuing a dark agenda while seeming to be oh so reasonable. Trouble with politics at times is trying to make the pieces fit – why would the Tories offer so much, in a way that is so out of keeping with their record? Why would Gordon Brown announce in such an abruptly high profile way his intention to step down, yet when Libdem-Labour negotiations begin they’re brutally scuppered? Something is wrong with this picture.

    As for the Tories then upping their bid – my credulity, already stretched, began to fray. What is in it for the Conservative party, what? Then I read Charlie Kennedy’s piece in the Guardian and it clicked. For the Tories, this isnt just about getting into power, its also about assimilation. Like Labour, the Tories would benefit greatly from the dissolution of the Liberal Democrats as a viable political force.

    Like others, I’ve wondered if an Iran-centred crisis would be enough to break the coalition but now I’m starting to wonder.

  • Jon

    @glenn – I’ve not read anything here that attacks you specifically. But yours is one of the most cogent and interesting voices on the blog – and there are quite a few. Keep commenting, even if you’re not comfortable with the coalition.

    @all – did anyone got to any of the voting reform demonstrations around the country? I went to a relatively small one in Brum, around 100 people – we had a local supportive MP come to speak with us, and it was covered by the media. I hear there was a larger one in London.

  • Jon

    @mike – I was thoroughly suspicious about the non-attempt at a Lib-Lab pact. But perhaps the media were right on this one – unusually – and it would have looked like a coalition of losers, lacking moral legitimacy. So it wasn’t even worth trying – but perhaps this reading is too kind?

    Any military action against Iran should, and would I think, end the coalition.

  • Mark Golding - Children of Iraq


    Your presence here is invaluable – we have already lost two good lucid women who I respect enormously, Mary and Dreoilin and also our best ‘link finder’ George; cohesion is essential in this place, I know we make a difference as witnessed by the ‘cyber’ attacks.

  • Clark


    I remember a night on which I was arguing as coherently as I could, but making no perceptible progress. The arrival of your comment and support was uplifting, so please stay. The comment of yours that was deleted recently was probably culled inadvertently in Craig’s spam purge:

    I wish Dreoilin and Mary would return.


    I didn’t get to the London demo on the 15th, but I was at the one on the previous Saturday.

  • Mattyd

    Now the Lib Con’s have started slashing spending and will cause a double dip recession I am sure the voters will thank the Lib Con’s at the ballot box in the Lib Dem city marginals. Brent East and others will revert back to a progressive party, Labour!

    What a sell out

  • Paul Johnston

    The Liberal Democrats campaigned strongly against tuition fees, with party leader Nick Clegg personally pledging to vote against any rise in fees during the next parliament.

    Now the “Top” universities what to raise fees, does Nick have a veto and can he use it?


  • Chris

    As a former Liberal… I fell out of love with the party over the Charles Kennedy issue… I can’t for the life of me see what possible good can come of this political marriage of convenience.

    I can see no future but one and that features Clegg and Laws and others in this tawdry gang jumping ship altogether and crossing the floor, leaving a rump Liberal party to decimation in future elections. Thanks a bunch folks… After all there is only one thing anyone needs to say prior to future polls: “Vote Liberal get Tory,” and that leaves the party dead in the water.

    The Orange Book was the beginning of the end. This, is the end.

  • mike cobley

    @jon – what flummoxes me is the picture of a party which did not go into electoral meltdown, as was predicted ad infinitum, yet whose leading lights decided they would rather go into opposition than take part in a centre-left coalition. Very fishy.

    And @Chris – Clegg, Laws et al aren’t the only ones who can write books, colour-coded or otherwise.

  • MJ

    “…would rather go into opposition than take part in a centre-left coalition. Very fishy”.

    Or very sensible. What surprises me is why the Tories and Lib Dems are so keen to form a government that is likely rapidly to become one of the most unpopular ever. I suspect Labour is quietly very satisfied indeed with the outcome.

  • Chris

    Sorry Mike Cobley… I can’t say I quite understand your comment about the book.

    I just never thought that a neo-con manifesto as wedded to the whims of the markets as those of Labour and Conservative was either progressive or liberal.

    With the right having captured Labour through Tony Blair I had hoped that the Liberals would, at least, provide a barrier to the utter capitulation of the political classes to the temple of mammon. Mr Clegg and his cohort have – sadly – proved me wrong.

    We have three major parties and yet I would struggle to slide a cigarette paper between them on any economic policy. Yes, they may differ around the edges but the fundamentals are the same – as though politics is over as an argument and the neo-liberals have won.

    I don’t accept or believe such narrow views and find myself within a growing constituency within the country that completely lack representation.

    And it makes me – and many others – sad.

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