Yesterday in Birmingham the Lib Dems held a special conference to discuss the decision to go into coalition with the Conservatives. Along with around 1400 others, I was there.
I think that the decision to hold this conference was definitely the right one - despite it not being constitutionally necessary as the Parliamentary Party and Federal Executive had already voted to approve the coalition deal by 75%.
The Lib Dems are a party in which the membership gets to decide. We decide policy at conference and we choose our representatives in all elections. We also have one member one vote leadership elections, unlike Labour.
So the Party took the courageous step to hold the conference anyway.
The event took place in one of the halls at the NEC outside Birmingham. It was a huge barn but was strangely intimate with 1400 or so people there. There were no press allowed in - something that has exercised other parties, notably Labour, which used to have secret sessions of its main party conference until very recently. Why closed in our case? I think it was right to do so because it meant that everyone could say what they really thought without worrying what the media would make of it. Any opponents of the deal would know they could say what they thought without having their face dragged across the 6 o'clock news. If they really wanted to sound off against the deal they could do so to the media outside. The closed nature also gave a bit more freedom to our MPs, especially the new ministers. Their words in particular would be picked over with a fine toothed comb for any possible disagreement with our Conservative chums.
I do have to declare an interest in this, however. As the Party Photographer, I had access to the event and was able to put a few pics out via an agency with no competition. So all the inside pics of the event that you see in today's papers are mine.
What of the event itself? Proceedings were opened by Ros Scott, our Party President who was one of the people to take the decision to hold it in the first place. The motion itself was moved by Andrew Stunell, one of the new local government ministers and someone who has been a good supporter of us in Cornwall. Then there were nine amendments. Nine! In fact, this was not a bad thing. None were opposed to the deal but sought to remind the MPs of various key aspects of Lib Dem policy or to press the case for a specific course of action for the new Government. Among them were, inevitably, PR as well as the need to overturn at least part of the Digital Economy Act. All were, in fact, accepted by the movers of the motion and, ultimately, approved overwhelmingly in the final vote.
Among the best speeches I heard during the event were those of Simon Hughes and Evan Harris. Both are darlings of the left of the Party and both spoke passionately in favour of the deal. I hope that, notwithstanding the closed nature of the event, Simon's speech in particular can be made public as it was truly a tour de force.
There were a few speeches in opposition, but the overall mood of the conference was clear before the vote. When it came, there were no more than a dozen to twenty hands raised in opposition.
As Nick said in his speech that followed, that was somewhat North Korean in outcome. Nevertheless, I am sure that he will be very pleased with the result. And so he should be. The vote not only endorses the idea of the coalition, but it shows just how much Nick is respected in the Party and how well our members feel that he and the team did during the negotiations. They secured a vast range of truly liberal deals in the coalition policy document and a number of key ministries too.
Would most of those there yesterday have preferred a different election outcome? Yes, of course. Even if we could not have had an overall majority (no longer quite so far fetched as it once was), most there would have liked to be in a position where we could have genuinely dealt with both Labour and the Conservatives. But the Labour Party was not serious about a deal and so it was never on. As one speaker said - how can you have a progressive coalition when only our party is progressive.