By Tuesday I had a good feel for conference: whether it was putting my watch in my jacket pocket to get through security quicker or voting on conference floor. Lord McNally made the first speech talking about the coalition’s position on human rights, international development and particularly Pakistan. He also spoke warmly about his work with Ken Clarke in the Justice department. Following this a motion on “fairness in a time of austerity” reaffirmed the party’s commitment to Social Liberalism speaking up for students, children and those in poverty. I then spoke in an intervention in the Equal Marriage motion which also featured a moving anecdotal contribution from Brian Paddick MP. This motion which, as I pointed out, enshrined liberty and personal freedom passed overwhelmingly and so Liberal Democrat policy now supports civil partnerships for mixed sex couples and most progressively “marriage” for same-sex couples.
Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats Simon Hughes rounded off the morning’s events with his speech. This staked our claim as a continuing independent party, but with new found influence over the governing of our country. Hughes illustrated with an analogy:
“When you move from the touchline to the pitch, there is a risk you may get some knocks and pick up a few bruises – but on the touchline you never get the chance to change the game. Now that we are in the game, one thing that we can say with absolute certainty is that from now we will not be ignored.”
He ended on the note that we will go into the next election in 2015 fighting for Liberal Democrat policies but in the mean time we will stick up for Liberal values as “the strongest Liberal party in Europe”, and he closed:
“…at the next election, when the public see the difference we have made, delivering a Britain which is fairer, freer and greener - they will know that it would not have happened without us.”
Following Simon Hughes’ speech I attended a fringe entitled “Liberal Democrats take on the big society” which featured him, Sarah Teather MP (minister for children) and the chief executives of the RSA and Ipsos Mori. Now I was hoping for this event to be a deconstruction of David Cameron’s patronising “big society”, however Teather and Hughes both pointed out despite the way the Conservatives had gone about marketing this, it represented similar Liberal ideas of community involvement and participation. There was a consensus that the big society could be a foil for third sector cuts and polls from Ipsos Mori showed that people were moderately sceptical: the big society certainly wasn’t helping Liberal Democrats gain popularity and most people were only enthusiastic for “other people” to become involved with public service provision. The conclusion was that only if people could be encouraged to become more actively involved in their communities, if there more opportunities and access from volunteering to public services was this was a positive move.
I caught the end of a rally with Floella Benjamin (who gave me a hug afterwards) as part of the “coalition for young people” and then went to see Chris Huhne, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change address conference. Huhne delivered an astonishingly powerful speech in which he set out the “Green Deal” which if it goes ahead in full will revolutionise the energy industry in our country
“This is a revolution in our economy. It is as profound as moving to steam, iron and coal in the first industrial revolution. Or to steel, petrol and gas in the second. In Britain, in this third industrial revolution, we will build a new economy of low carbon and clean growth. As we have done before, we will show the world the way.”
I look forward to future moves on Huhne’s Green Deal, which are set to include a shift to electric power (rail, cars, heating), up to 250,000 new jobs by 2030 and a Green Investment Bank to fund research and projects in renewable energy.
Later in the evening a true giant of the party: Lord Paddy Ashdown was interviewed by Andrew Rawnsley which you can see here. He pointed out that the Labour negotiation team were impossible but he was “devastated” at the prospect of a coalition with the Conservatives. But after reading the Coalition Agreement his self-reported response was “f**k it, I’m with you” and now he is a passionate supporter of the coalition, and the most confident of the former leaders in Nick Clegg’s leadership.