My Speech to Conference on Europe

Here is a transcript of my speech to the Liberal Democrat 2020 Autumn Conference on the Europe motion debated on 27th September.

Good Evening Conference and hello from a chilly Lincolnshire

Some of you might have got to know Lincolnshire a little better during the 2016 Sleaford & North Hykeham by-election in which I had the pleasure to represent the party here in my home county.

 In the campaign, we were the only party fighting for our place in Europe. Labour plummeted into fourth place in that election due to their muddled message over Europe. Labour finishing behind us made the headlines that night, and we narrowly missed out on a second place to UKIP in one of the strongest Leave areas in the country.

 I was proud to be flying the flag for our party and Remain during that election.

But looking at the motion as it stands currently, it is a similar kind of fudge to that ambiguous Labour position.

Lines 47-50 would leave us in constant limbo and open to continuous questions as to what we will do and when is the right time. I mean – How long would we actually wait for the circumstances to be right?

It is a far cry for our clear and simple rallying call of Stop Brexit in 2019 European Elections which stood out and helped us to our best ever European election results.

Screenshot of my speech to the virtual conference (thanks to Leon Duveen for the image)

I despair that we are not brave enough to take the lead on Re-join and give hope to those who have had their lives turned upside down by the UK withdrawal. We know the impact it already has had on people’s lives and we know that is only going to get worse. We also know we are better together and better inside the European family.

We have never been shy in the past to take unpopular stances when it was the right thing to do.

 Whether it was Charles Kennedy’s stance against the Iraq invasion in the face of opposition from politicians, the press and public opinion. Despite the protests against the invasion, the majority were in favour – but Charles held firm.

 The party also has a long history of supporting LGBT+ Rights going back to the 1960s- long before it became a mainstream issue because it was the right thing to do.

 Conference, without amending this motion it seems to be responding to headline writers rather than seeing us do the right thing now.

 Europe is in our DNA as a party.

 I agree Europe is not the number one priority at this moment, but that does not mean we should turn our back on our principles to appease the right-wing press. Passing Amendment 1 does not mean we have to make it front and centre of our campaigns – it means we have it in our arsenal.

I urge you to support Re-join- vote for Amendment 1 and be ready to lead on this and to keep us as the true European party.

Thank you

Oh, I do like to be beside the virtual seaside

This weekend is vastly different from the one I was planning nine months ago. The annual pilgrimage to the Liberal Democrat Conference has been much shorter than the usual trek for me down to the south coast to the resorts of Brighton or Bournemouth.

After the planned Spring Conference in York was cancelled at the last minute in March just a few days before the country went into lockdown, I turned my focus to looking forward to the annual big seaside gathering which this year was to be held in Brighton.

With the effects of the pandemic continuing, it was announced that the Autumn Conference was also off. The Party said that alternatives were being looked at to allow a sort of conference to be held.

Brighton Pavillion - Brighton would have hosted Lib Dem Conference this Autumn
Brighton would have hosted the Lib Dem Autumn Conference this year

My colleagues within the Party managed to find the solution – going Virtual. This has allowed the Party to keep the most important part of a Liberal Democrat Conference up and running – making policy. The debates and voting can now be all done from our home offices, at kitchen tables or, if you prefer, still in bed! There is a kind of nosiness about seeing everyone in their own homes and seeing what speakers have on their bookshelves behind them (a bit like we have been doing with celebrities during interviews on the TV over the last six months!)

There is also a jam-packed training programme, which is especially great as we have so many new conference attendees this year which the conference being so accessible this year.

Despite being at home, the conference timings have still meant grabbing food at odd times, or late at night after the conference programme is over, although the benefit is the food is more healthy and cheaper (the same with the coffee prices!)

The one thing the virtual conference cannot replicate is the togetherness. I am missing seeing those friends who you only see at conference time and the late-night discussions on motions being discussed the next day. The buzz that you also normally get from so many like-minded people in one place is also missing. I have not yet tried the networking facility on the platform being used which has been likened to ‘speed-dating’ – where you get to talk to a fellow networking member at conference randomly for a short time.

The Lib Dem Conference Hall where the debates, voting and set-speeches are usually held

However, saying that, whether we must have a full virtual conference again in Spring is unknown, but it is so important that we have a sense of normality even if there is a modern twist on it.

I hope that when we can meet again at a conference venue, that an element of the virtual conference is continued, maybe a hybrid version like the House of Commons currently. This would allow those who are not able to access a traditional conference for whatever reason to attend, to vote on our policies and have a taste of the conference experience.

Conference to me has always been an important part of the year, and I have missed very few since my first conference back in Brighton in 2007. I look forward to the time when we can all be back together again as a big Lib Dem family, but until then, it is great to know that the usual Lib Dem quirks of conference with procedural motions and fringe events (minus the curly sandwiches and warm wine) continues – even if we are not together in person.