Liberal Democrat conference, Blackpool

My bags are packed and I hi-tailed it out of town on Saturday morning from Euston. On the train, I sit down and the woman across the aisle from me immediately asks me if I am Lynne Featherstone. I cannot tell a lie! Actually, she turned out to be a constituent living in Creighton Avenue on her way to Glasgow to visit her Mum and we had a few enjoyable hours putting the world to rights; if only we were in charge!

Blackpool may well be a wonderful place for stag nights and hen parties for the young, drunk and noisy, but – sober and middle-aged, truly sorry and no offence meant, it would not be my first choice. Every time I enter the Winter Gardens – which is the conference centre – I try and imagine what nightmares were haunting the author of the design brief. Must have been truly evil!

The Conference Hotel is adequate – but is nowhere near the Winter Gardens and so the delegates are consigned to spending a good part of each day travelling between the two from main hall debates at the Winter Garden to all the fringe meetings at the main hotel and others. In fact, the local authority provided a free shuttle bus – but hardly anyone was told.

But to the business. My guess is – as always – that the media will focus on whether Lib Dems are going to the right or the left and whether Charlie boy’s leadership will be challenged. I turn out to be right on both counts. I do one fringe meeting on the right/left kafuffle. The title of the event is ‘Can the Liberal Democrats be part of a Progressive Consensus’? This is hosted by the Independent Newspaper and chaired by Steve Richards who does the early Sunday morning politics show on GMTV. (You can read my speech on my website).

I have a go a Gordon Brown – basically. Don’t believe he is capable of a consensus – progressive or otherwise. Or more accurately, Brown’s progressive consensus is just that – OK so long as you agree with him. Anyway – as everyone knows – I think Brown is a coward who keeps his head down below the parapet when the going gets tough, votes a straight New Labour ticket, is the author of the astronomically expensive and appalling part-privatisation of the tube and who broods in the shadows whilst waiting for Tony’s tide to go out.

But what the media really, really want – is for the Liberal Democrats to tear themselves apart on the basis that those of us who fight or represent old Tory seats will want to shift to the right and those of us who fight or represent old Labour seats (like me) will want to be on the centre-left of the political spectrum.

Clearly a disappointing night then as all four of us speakers – Simon Hughes, David Laws, Vince Cable and myself – in one way or another all argue that it isn’t a matter of right left – it’s about Liberal values. Especially when the Labour government is knee-jerking poorly thought out legislation into being and striking at the principles of justice and freedom that make our country what it is.

The other great debate going on is about multiculturalism and what it means to be British, particularly after 7/7.

Trevor Phillips, Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, has thrown down the gauntlet with a nifty little sound bite: ‘we are sleepwalking our way into segregation’. His thesis being that we live in our cultural enclaves and mix less and less. Statement of the bleeding obvious I should say – although it strikes me lots of politicos are fundamentally in denial whilst a Sky TV poll clearly puts over 80% + of real people in line with that thesis.

I get two bites at this issue. I speak at a fringe meeting and then there is also a debate in the main hall.

For the debate, conference has introduced a new format where representatives send in their preferred topic for a discussion on an urgent issue. There is no motion or vote – but people’s views are taken back and with further work and consultation a motion will then be brought back to the next conference for decision. It’s my job to summate the debate.

I have my own views too- and whilst I do think we are becoming a segregated society, I don’t think the 7/7 bombers were making a statement about poverty or alienation when they blew us up or that solving the issues of poverty and alienation in our ethnic communities will have anything but a tiny effect on terrorism in ours or any Western country. Terrorists don’t generally come from the poorest or most alienated.

However, history has given us a bit of a lesson about where extremists go to find fodder for their causes. So whilst tackling poverty and alienation won’t directly stop terrorism, it will help make it harder for terrorists to recruit support in future.

I also chair two of the keynote speeches in the main hall. The second one is for my Home Affairs team leader – Mark Oaten – our Shadow Home Secretary. So with only a sentence or two to say I introduce him as the ‘toughest Liberal I know’ – a phrase picked up by the media sketch writers for the Telegraph and the Guardian! Mark had said a couple of days earlier that he would kill me if I introduced him thus – but I did it purposefully as I believe that ‘tough liberalism’ is the way forward – particularly in terms of law and order.

Mark gave a bravura speech.

I (and you will thank me for this) am not going to go through every fringe I spoke at – but I was allowed to pontificate on a much wider range of subjects than ever before. In my previous incarnation I was kept pretty much to my policing and transport portfolios. This time – outside of my usual training sessions for the party on ‘How we Won Hornsey & Wood Green’ and ‘Grow your Own Target Seat’, I covered Lords – the Last Bastion of Freedom?, What Difference would Electoral Reform make to Women? (not a great deal in my view); The Future of our Towns; Making the Breakthrough (or how to get our arses into gear in the 100+ seats we are second to Labour in for next time); Blogging and so on.

New experience for me (it is always great to do something you have never done before) was something called GNS. I had to go and do the radio responses on what Mark Oaten had said about breaking the consensus around Labour’s proposed new terrorist legislation. Whilst we support three of the proposals – an offence of training for terrorism, incitement to terrorism and acts preparatory to terrorism – we can’t support an offence ‘glorification of terrorism’ or the ‘three months detention without trial’. Briefly – the ‘glorification’ one is just too wide a definition. It would turn into a feast for lawyers all interpreting (as is their job) but with such a wide spectrum that it would be very hard for such legislation to be effective – and you don’t want the real terrorist dodging around the new legislation because it is poor and they have a good lawyer.

The other – three months detention – strikes at the very heart of our principles of justice – and is another form of internment. Moreover, having seen how stop and search works in practice when I was on the Metropolitan Police Authority – it would be just too easy for profiling to lead to autom
atic three month detention on suspicion – and suspicion as we tragically know from the Met shooting an innocent Br
azilian isn’t enough. And if after 14 days they need more evidence and more time, there are other ways. They currently put people under surveillance and the numbers are not such that that would be too difficult or expensive. In fact it might very well concentrate the police mind on intelligence-based evidence rather than suspicion. Three months internment would make them casual in their rigour.

Anyway – none of this was the point of my tale. The tale was about the GNS process. I was to speak for eight minutes to each BBC radio station around the country – live! So with headphones on in a tiny studio and with an electronics box – one after another station around the country dialled me up and did the interview. It was pretty tough going. I was just brilliant by about the fifth one – when I had got all my best lines in place – but definitely going off the boil with over-confidence by the ninth! But – as I say – had never even heard of this type of interview before.

And so – the rest was a late dinner with friends and pretty early to bed – and yes – it really was all work!