The Spring Conference of Liberal Youth was held in the lovely city of Leeds, thanks to a successful bid submitted by our branch, Leeds Liberal Youth. I have to admit, I was a Conference virgin, having not been to either a Liberal Youth nor a Federal Conference before (rather stupidly electing not to go to the 2011 Conference in Sheffield). But, with a Conference taking place in my proverbial back yard, I felt I was obligated to go. That, and I was part of the host.
Conference started on Friday evening near Crash Accomodation up in Headingley… or it would be, had everything gone completely to plan. Due to a mix-up with the Parish Hall, a Leeds Rhinos game, and half the national executive stuck on the M1, it actually started in the pub nearby, with an address from the local MP, Greg Mulholland, who talked about the importance of getting our message out on the doorsteps, including that we’re trying to temper the Tories, of the work our councillors do nationwide, and how the Bradford West by-election the previous day showed how Labour needed to realise they can’t take their heartland constituencies for granted. After a minor CRB-related mix-up due to aforementioned traffic jam on the M1, we were sorted in Crash and spent the evening introducing ourselves to people who haven’t met each other before.
I didn’t stay in Crash, having a nice(-ish) flat to go to down in Burley, so I met up with everyone the following morning for the first of the two policy debate sessions. The motions on further education loans and marriage equality, unsurprisingly, passed unanimously, the latter including a speech by myself to make marriage-related laws gender neutral. The third debate, on remutalisation of the railways, was more contentious, with some people supporting the motion for bringing power to passengers, and some, including myself, supporting renationalisation instead. The policy debate then turned into a debate on the new constitution, where we were asked to accept or decline certain options to the new constitution, with debates on life membership, when Conference gets held, and what happens if we want to endorse candidates for elections in the party.
After lunch was a second policy session, where motions on introducing political education, regulating non-lethal weapons, and paying for internships all passed with only minor debate. Then came the more interesting stuff: Ewan Hoyle, the founder of Liberal Democrats for Drug Reform, gave a talk and Q&A session on drug policy, covering the medicinal use of drugs, addiction rates among sex workers, and decriminalisation of cannabis and, later, ecstasy.
But by far the most interesting session was led by Liam Burns, president of the NUS. In the past, I’ve personally been very critical of the NUS over its conduct over tuition fees, especially re: Labour’s rise in 2004, and their actions in 2009-10. However, Liam made the salient point, through separating the attendees into three, that the NUS is as mis-perceived as the rest of the student political sphere. He also was forthright about the fact that, in the past, it has been a Labour talking shop (himself being a Labour supporter). However, he was very friendly about some elements of the party, including that Liberal Youth nearly always share the same opinion as the NUS on student issues, and that he could not fault the Scottish Liberal Democrats for their work for students either, and that their decimation in the Scottish Parliament elections wasn’t that much deserved. The core message was that, for the Lib Dems to win back the students, they need to engage the students and try to work with the NUS: indeed, I agree that we could get a seat or two on the National Executive Committee if we ran a slate like the SWP do.
The last non-administrative session of the day was a strategy session on how to get as many people as possible to respond to the Equal Marriage consultation. The theme running through that we should engage with as many different larger groups to fill it out, including feminist, LGBT, and atheist societies on campuses, SUs and the NUS, and religious groups such as the Quakers or Unitarians. After reports from the committee, we all travelled to Crash, myself accompanying one of the younger attendees on a walk to Headingley. We arrived somewhat late, and after getting something to eat, we were the only two left in Crash while the others went to the pub (just as well, as I rarely drink alcohol), we spent the evening talking about gender and sexual politics and singing Glee Club songs. Despite a promise from one of the exec, who shall remain anonymous, of pizza, we had to go out ourselves to get some, and after that I stayed and kept an eye on the people streaming in until just before lights out.
The final day was split between leafleting and administrative business. I admit, I skipped the leafleting, and met up with everyone for the two hours split between officer motions (an automatic censure motion fell, all motions of commendation passed mostly nem. con.), by-elections (mostly uncontested, except for the election to, I believe, Policy Committee), and constitutional amendments submitted by Tom because he and Stuart weren’t able to update the constitution on time; most already passed as drafting amendments and the rest mostly passed, although a clause that would have given more power to the Chair fell, as did a clause that would allow candidates for election to self-nominate in “exceptional” circumstances. Tom, as Chair, officially closed the conference, thanking everyone for attendance, as is customary. Post-closure, most people hung around for an hour, singing more songs from the Liberator songbook, and there was a short Good Omens-like conversation between myself and another attendee, as the Devil and God respectively (having previously referred to the microphones as the Voice of God). But, with people having to catch trains, we all had to leave the University, so I led a small group down to the train station, where I personally thanked them for their attendance, while they all caught the London train southwards.
So, after all the waffle which resembles a boring diary more than anything, what was the best thing about Conference? Personally, it was the networking opportunities. I met a lot of wonderful people (I count about 20) who, mostly having been to Conference before, were able to tease me into Conference culture, making me really tempted to attend conference next time I can afford it. It also restored my faith in the party, having been wavering for the past couple of months over stuff like the Health Bill and the Welfare Reform Bill (which, I’m happy to say, Greg voted against), and in the NUS, as Liam Burns gave an impassioned and convincing defence of it and proposal to work together. I’ll probably start to get more involved internally – my tenure as Leeds Liberal Youth treasurer has been rather uneventful – and keep in touch with everyone. It was really that good.