Earlier this week we finished our first ever virtual Lib Dem Conference. Given the circumstances it was a very good conference indeed. Most important of all for Lib Dems it gave ordinary members the chance to listen, speak and vote in the debate. In total more than 4,000 signed up to the Conference and many of them took part in the debates, training and information sessions as well as getting on with their own Lib Demmery in their communities. What a contrast with Labour’s so-called conference which was just a series of talking heads and no interaction between the Leadership and members. That’s what the Tory Conference will be like as well, although come to think of it that’s what the Tory Conference is always like.
Of all the debates that one that received the most attention was the one that dealt with the vexed question of Europe. It had been billed, probably by our PR department, as a contest where the Leadership line could be overturned and that there was mutiny in the ranks. In fact, there was nothing like that at all. Apart for a few minutes when I had IT problems I listened to the whole debate and was struck by the few real differences inside the Lib Dems over the key issues. As was repeatedly said being internationalist and therefore being pro EU is part of our political DNA. There was no debate at all about whether we should be in Europe. Just what do we do in the short and medium terms until it is time to get back.
After 75 minutes of debate an amendment to start the re-joining the EU from 1st January 2021 was defeated by 4 to 1. One which set out a timescale for re-joining was overwhelmingly carried and the amended motion was carried with about 95% of conference voting for it. This is what the amended motion actually said:
Conference notes with deep concern:
- The decision by the Conservative Government not to seek an extension to the post-Brexit transition period beyond 31 December 2020 despite the apparently deadlocked ‘future relationship’ negotiations between the UK and the EU on economic, transport, migration, welfare, fisheries and security arrangements.
- That the UK cannot afford to crash out of the EU without a deal in place or to accept a rushed, bad deal at a time when the UK is already facing the biggest crisis in generations as a result of COVID-19 against a background of intensified China-USA-Russia rivalry.
- That the rights of UK citizens in the EU and EU citizens in the UK remain at risk, as the Conservative Government attempts to roll back from the commitments it made in the 2019 Withdrawal Agreement.
- The Conservative Government’s Internal Market Bill, which the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has admitted will breach international law “in a very limited and specific way”, trashes the UK’s reputation, sets a dangerous precedent and almost certainly precludes any chance of a Free Trade Agreement with either the EU or the USA unless the offending sections are removed.
Conference believes that:
- There is no deal that could be negotiated that could be more beneficial than continued membership of the EU, and the damage caused by Brexit to the UK’s economy human rights, security, and standing in the world will be profound and long-lasting.
- The UK and its people share fundamental values of liberalism, democracy and respect for the rule of law with our European neighbours and allies; the European Union is our natural home and the UK’s rightful place should be at the heart of the EU.
Conference affirms the party’s immediate priorities to:
- Hold the Conservative Government to account unstintingly as it fails to deliver what it promised, and expose the damage of this Government’s Brexit to our economy, security, society and national unity.
- Campaign vigorously against measures which are prejudicial to British industry, agriculture and democracy, and in so doing point to the benefits of closer relations with the EU.
- Continue to work with others in Parliament (including in the House of Lords) to halt or amend damaging legislation such as measures in the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill.
- Support international cooperation and a global rules-based system, and oppose isolationism and economic nationalism.
Conference calls for:
- The Conservative Government to honour the commitments it made in the Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration.
- The rights of UK citizens in the EU and EU citizens in the UK not to be further eroded – and where possible enhanced – and the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights and Charter of Fundamental Rights to be respected for all UK citizens.
- The closest possible alignment between the UK and the EU towards customs union, single market and freedom of movement, including minimising tariff and non- tariff trade barriers, no lowering of environmental, food and animal welfare standards, and the maintenance of strong diplomatic, developmental, defence, security, judicial, educational and scientific cooperation.
Conference resolves to support a longer-term objective of UK membership of the EU at an appropriate future date to be determined by political circumstances, subject to public assent, market and trade conditions and acceptable negotiated terms.
Predictably this has been greeted by the Daily Wail as a sell out to Europe and by Labour as a sell out on Europe! Of course, the Daily Mail is upset. Everything is said about the advantages of leaving the EU have disappeared with no trade deal with the USA being likely. Of course, Labour are upset. They haven’t got a policy at all!
So basically, our policy has three sequential sections:
- Fight the Tory madness in the run up to the 31st December and do what we can to get a trade deal in place without which our Country will suffer badly.
- After 1st January do out utmost to keep European links in place for universities, trade and communities including things like the scientific communities where we fight Covid and other illnesses.
- Fight to re-join the EU when people in the UK realise just how bad the decision to leave was and how much.
That’s a group of policies that do not reflect where we want to be, which is to be a member of the EU, but does reflect the reality of the UK as we grapple with Covid and appalling trade deficits in the short term.