Ever since last year’s UK elections produced a hung Parliament and the current Conservative/Lib Dem coalition, I’ve been following politics with a keen eye – particularly the travails of the Lib Dems, who find themselves in (sort of) power after many, many decades. It’s been interesting to see the spirited debates on places like Lib Dem Voice and the reactions of party members to their drubbing in last month’s local elections (alternately complacent and apocalyptic).
When I saw that the Social Liberal Forum conference was being held in London on a Saturday (yesterday, actually), with two cabinet members speaking (Chris Huhne and Vince Cable) and tickets for only £25, it seemed like a brilliant opportunity to see how political parties come up with policies at an early stage. The Social Liberal Forum is an:
Internal party pressure group with the aim of developing social liberal solutions and approaches which reflect these principles and which find popular support.
Despite being only two years old, it has around 1800 members and claims to have influenced Lib Dem party policy to a significant degree; so going to the conference wasn’t exactly like going to a proper Party Conference with all the attendant votes and such, but it was definitely a step up from the usual local confab.
I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’ve been to dozens of conferences from TED to SXSW to FooCamp to book publishing conferences in Italy and spoken at many of them, and my feeling about those is that you rarely learn anything new (apart from maybe TED; otherwise, books and the web are better) but they’re very good places to gauge the general feeling of a community, and of course, to swap gossip. The purpose of the SLF Conference wasn’t clear to me – was it to listen to some speeches, or was it to try and formulate a bit of policy – but either way, I was hoping it’d at least be a novel experience. I also strongly believe that there is desperately little political engagement among the tech community and I wanted to see how things were done.
Due to general laziness and not knowing my way around City University, I ended up missing the first session, which apparently was quite good, but I did arrive just in time for the second session, Deficit Reduction – Ideology or Necessity?
(Side note: This month there was a very big kerfuffle within the Lib Dem community about how attendees to the upcoming Party Conference will need to provide accreditation, i.e. address and passport/driving licence/NI number, to check that they’re not about to embarrass everyone with protests a terrorist. Both the Conservatives and the Labour Party already do this for their conferences, so I think the Lib Dem organisers were taken aback by the strong opposition regarding privacy, civil liberties, etc, not to mention the fact that the decision was made in private.
Anyway, the reason why things are different this year is apparently because David Cameron is speaking at the conference and that the Home Office and the police have ‘suggested’ to the Lib Dems that increased security measures should be in place. After a lot of back and forth in the comments, it emerged that the measures have happened mostly because they couldn’t get insurance for the venue otherwise.
The reason why this is relevant is because when I walked in to the conference venue, all I had to do was say my name and I could pick up a badge. Since I wasn’t asked to show ID, I could have just said any of the names I saw laid on the registration table; and because there was no bag search or metal detectors, well, who knows what someone could have done to two Cabinet Ministers, multiple MPs, and a room full of party activists… but hey, David Cameron wasn’t there, so I guess it’s all OK).
The two speakers were Vince Cable, Business Secretary in the Cabinet, and Ed Randall, a Senior Lecturer in Politics and Social Policy at Goldsmiths. After an endearingly unorganised struggle with the microphones, Vince Cable entered the room and was greeted by a round of applause. I found this a bit odd until I realised that the sentiment was probably along the lines of, “Wow, how awesome are we as a group to get Vince Cable, a Cabinet Minister, to come along to our audience?” rather than “This guy is so amazing he deserves applause wherever he goes.”
(Side side note: There were about 200 people in the room and it was about 90% white, 70% male, and mostly middle-aged. Not many students – I guess they’re all too annoyed with the Lib Dems to come along any more. When I tweeted this observation (along with the caveat that it was probably the same at other Conservative and Labour gatherings), someone told me that it used to be worse. Well, I hate to think what the last meeting was like then…)
Ed Randall was up first, and while he started off strong with a direct critique of the government’s austerity drive, he rapidly lost the audience with a disconnected narrative that rambled through two dozen different points illustrated by impossibly dense slides, e.g.:
This was a real shame, because I recognised many of the points he was making, and they were pretty good points regarding inequality and Keynesian stimuli and such, but they were covered so quickly and with so little explanation that hardly anyone understood what he was getting at (including me). It also proved to set the theme of most of the non-politician speakers of the day – a 30 minute lecture on a subject that you could probably get a better explanation of online or on Radio 4.
Vince’s talk was exactly what you’d expect for a guy who was being broadcast live on BBC News 24; a by-the-numbers defence of government policies – nothing you wouldn’t have heard before if you’d seen the news in the last few months, which raises the question, what is the point of repeating this stuff at an activist conference comprised of the core? He did give one very interesting (if obvious) answer in response to a question about social mobility though – that social mobility wasn’t just about the poor getting richer, but the rich inevitably getting poorer. I’m surprised that didn’t get picked up more, but then again, I only write about technology for the Telegraph, not politics…
Along with about 80% of the I headed to the breakout session on Inequality, social mobility and pay – what does fairness look like? rather than sticking around for the ‘main’ session about the NHS (from what I could tell, most of the wannabee pols and the bloggers went to the NHS session, and everyone else went to the breakout).
There were three speakers at the breakout. The first guy talked about Amartya Sen’s definition of inequality and social mobility and was just starting to get into policy specific when his 10 minutes ran out. The second guy said that we should use our ownership of the banks to set up new ‘baby bonds’ that would provide everyone turning 18 with £10,000, to be used on worthy things (not hookers and blow, I presumed). I can’t remember what the final guy said; it might have been about the minimum wage but it certainly wasn’t memorable.
Since this was a breakout session, there was a whole 30 minutes allocated to Q&A. Very predictably, the first question began, “This isn’t a question, but…” and then proceeded to lay into the baby bonds guy and accuse him of taking vital money away from schools and teachers, to rapturous applause. Other questions followed the same ‘this isn’t a question’ vein and addressed such varied topics as ‘we should respect car workers more’ and ‘I agree’. To be fair, there were some very good questions, but they were in a minority.
After the fifth question, I realised that questioners weren’t that interested in dialogue at that moment, they were just bursting to talk about politics to a big room, hence the mini-speeches. There’s nothing wrong with that – a lot of people like talking about politics and I’m sure it must be tricky to find interested debating partners from where you live – but as a format for a lecture or panel or debate or, well, anything at all useful, it was just terrible. Really, really terrible.
When you’ve got a room full of 100 people who all want to sound off on completely different topics but only have about 30 seconds each, nothing is going to happen. A Barcamp format would be far better, even if it made people feel less important.
Next: lunch. A pretty nice cafe called Goswell Coffee about ten minutes down the round. I had a chat with a couple of people from the conference there, who were very nice.
Afterwards, The triple crunch – credit, fuel and food with Chris Huhne, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Halina Ward, Director of The Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development, and Lucy Care, Lib Dem Councillor. Chris Huhne’s talk was a solid if underwhelming argument for having good regulations to help save money and the environment (i.e. one of those things that no-one could possibly be against). I believe he was just reading the speech out, making some people wonder what the point was.
Halina Ward gave a very detailed and well-constructed critique of the government’s (lack of) sustainable development strategy, which went sadly unaddressed by Chris Huhne, or indeed anyone else in the room. Lucy Care spoke at peak oil, which is an interesting subject but one rendered slightly strange when she said that peak oil might not be all that bad, since we are a ‘very lazy species’ and having to physically sweep the roads, etc., might be good for us (during this bit, I saw Chris Huhne couldn’t suppress a shit-eating grin – to be fair, neither could I).
Some questions. Who knows what they were? Then the final session, which was about Political alignments and delivering the social liberal agenda (i.e. what’s next?). The first speaker was a guy from Labour, who made the case for a Labour/Lib-Dem coalition after the next election. Unknown to him, for the first time during the conference, a ‘twitterfall’ was being displayed behind him by the projector, which predictably filled up with jokes about Labour, Ed Miliband, etc (full disclosure: one of them was by me).
And then I left early because I was meeting some friends for a drink, and it didn’t seem as if anything interesting was going to happen for the rest of the session.
Imagine you’re at a convention organised by film fans and they’ve managed to attract some really big names; Spielberg, Scorsese, Nolan. So Spielberg gets up and gives the same talk that he’s given to a dozen other conventions; and then after him, you have a guy who’s read a few books about film saying how it’d be nice if films were more realistic. And then the Q&A is full of people announcing their love of Lord of the Rings, or saying that making films more realistic would kill Pixar. That’s what this conference felt like.
It was a talking shop, and not a very good talking shop at that. Most of the non-politician talks were intensely theoretical, with no discussion of the results of the local elections and no sense of impending doom. I get that we’re still four years away from general elections, and personally I think there isn’t anything wrong with talking shop, but there was very little realisation that you need to bring the electorate with you on policy, even if you think your policy is really awesome (the corollary to that is that many politicians simply pander to the public, or at least to their party; at least these guys at this forum had new interesting ideas).
No-one is really talking to each other. No-one is saying anything new. Nothing is getting done.
This is the point at which someone would tell me that it’s not about the speeches or the breakout sessions, it’s about the networking. I hear you – when I was at SXSW for two days, I went to about 5 sessions in total and spent the rest of my time chatting to friends and getting the gossip. But this was a one day conference, and mostly everyone spent about six hours in a conference listening to stuff they could well have watched on YouTube (or indeed, BBC News) or read on a blog. It seems ridiculous that the useful component of the conference is relegated to the short tea and lunch breaks, and the pub afterwards.
Personally, I lean to the left. I have sympathy with many Lib Dem policies. But regardless of the quality of the policies, the format of the conference was terrible; and I’m sure it’s the same with all the other conferences. Perhaps the Social Liberal Forum really does influence party policy, but judging by this conference, it’s probably just a few people who really make the decisions. That’s very depressing, because I was really struck by the passion and intelligence and respect that the attendees had. They were all smart, engaged people who deserved to heard; but if you have 200 people in a room, they can’t all talk at once, and they can’t all take turns either.
There are other ways.