Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Spring Conference feedback 1 - The Price of Freedom

Terrifically enjoyable, inspiring and useful and only 2 nights’ worth of sleep deprivation but it’s funny: usually at Conference, the media finds a threat to Nick’s leadership whilst members notice nothing serious. This Conference was the reverse.

Whilst there was much optimism and determination, there was a growing unease as well as outright resignations by Sunday. 

There has been much government policy with which it is impossible to agree but it’s usually possible to understand – or at least get a feel for – the intricacies of the issues and negotiating positions for our colleagues in Parliament, in the context of a system and culture which struggles with coalition.  Conference is invaluable in this respect, providing direct & indirect ministerial-to- member communication, formally or informally, of the whys and wherefores of policy positions, a window on to negotiating positions, the hurdles and the unseen wins. 

But with the issue of “secret courts”,   Nick appeared not only to fail to win the argument but to undermine himself by appearing genuinely convinced by his bad case.  

The full arguments are complex, varied and well-rehearsed by a host of lawyers but to pick on a single non-technical issue:  Nick argued in his Q&A session that one reason the government is backing closed material proceedings is to stop the indirect funding of terrorism. To pick at just one thread in the unravelling of that argument, it is an assumption of guilt. On the part of all potential claimants. By the government. In civil cases against the government.  Feeling queasy yet? The protection of civil liberties is such a fundamental value of the LibDems that many regarded this as simply unacceptable from our leader.  

So what is the real back story for this?  When Jo Swinson MP can read out a list of all the things we have stopped, why have we not stopped this? Has there been a strategic decision to cave on this electorally irrelevant issue in exchange for some other policy agreement where there is media and electoral advantage?  What the heck could have been that good?

Or does Nick feel justified by unshareable – and untried - intelligence from the security services regarding previous or probable claimants? As every law student is taught, “hard cases make bad law”.

The issue was also set in the context of the Rennard allegations.  Leaving aside the specifics, my question was whether the perception that one individual had an undemocratic level of power over the careers of fellow party members was correct. People tell me yes but that the situation has changed since the appointment of Tim Gordon as Chief Exec. 

The attitude of the leadership to Conference over secret courts has only added to my growing understanding of the constant vigilance required to build and maintain even an internal party democracy.  

Some further reading on the issues surrounding “secret courts”:

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