"The time is NOW": report on Liberal Democrat Spring Conference, York, March 2019
By Rachel Dineley
The Liberal Democrats' Spring Conference in York, in March this year, provided a very welcome opportunity for members to consider key issues of concern to us all, other than Brexit. Our Diversity Officer, Rachel Dineley and her husband and fellow member, Stephen Taylor, attended the conference and greatly enjoyed it.
"It was, in turns, informative, interesting and inspiring. We were impressed by the range of topics debated, the clarity of presentations and quality of contributions. There was something for everyone, whatever one's personal interests may have been."
After consultative sessions on the Friday afternoon (15 March) there were various fringe events, and a very full programme on the Saturday. Rachel found the session on "Eradicating Race Inequality" particularly helpful and was pleased to find the motion so well supported (see her separate report on diversity issues at the conference on our diversity page
Christine Jardine MP gave an impressive speech on the failure of universal credit and how much needs to change to relieve poverty in the UK. Tom Brake MP led the discussion on Europe, with excellent perspectives given by speakers from around the country and from Europe.
After a question and answer session with Sir Vince Cable (who was very lucid as usual) a policy motion was debated on cleaning up the air we breathe and how to tackle road pollution. No one could be left in any doubt as to how big an issue this is and how important it is to tackle it.
The pros and cons of various aspects of a registered supporters' scheme were keenly debated, along with changes to the constitution for the election of a leader, before amendments were considered and a series of votes taken. Given the fine detail and the complexity of the motions, it was extremely well managed.
The Sunday morning provided an opportunity to address "Access to Justice for All", another topic close to Rachel's heart, as a retired solicitor. The absence of legal aid and the huge pressures on the courts and tribunals service have led to appalling unfairness and, quite often, delay and protraction of legal processes, where the availability of early advice through the legal aid system could have averted litigation altogether. Rachel observes "Sadly, the system fails to recognise that prevention is better than cure. A lack of investment and the reduction in funding has generated countless problems for ordinary people which could readily be avoided or minimised, if access to justice was restored to the standards of a decade ago."
Young people were the focus of two important motions. The emergency motion recognised the crisis in knife crime and the need to fund long term youth support services, not at the expense of other local services but in addition to them. There were excellent contributions from young Liberal Democrats supporting the motion "No to Unpaid Internships, Yes to Real Opportunities". The focus on the need to pay a proper wage to interns (who are workers, however their engagement may be dressed up as 'volunteering'), to aid social mobility, emphasised how this would give those with real potential a proper opportunity to develop their skills. There were heartening stories, particularly from Liberal Democrat local authorities, of the wonderful contributions made by interns who have been appropriately paid and so have been able to sustain long term internships for the benefit of all.
The conference concluded with a speech from Sir Vince Cable, which was heart-warming and inspiring. Rachel says "He left us in no doubt that "the time is NOW". We have our work cut out to bring about change, but it is so worthwhile. We felt it was genuinely uplifting. "
Although discussions were very good natured and there were plenty of laughs, there were sombre moments too. A minute's silence was observed for the many victims of the massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand, as well as one for Lord Paddy Ashdown, to whom moving tributes were paid.
The fringe events were no less stimulating. Rachel and Stephen greatly enjoyed a session on the Saturday night on climate change. Expert speakers, Prof Nick Cowern (Newcastle) and Prof Simon Sweeney (International Politics, York) joined Ed Davey MP to address the very pressing need to keep climate change below 1.5 degrees and what that means. Organised by the Green Liberal Democrats, the packed meeting room heard much that was fascinating, scary and inspiring. It is evident that there is much that can be done to tackle the problem and the time for action is now.