York is a beautiful city, and with the mild weather and the daffodils coming into bloom along the city walls it was a beautiful time to be there… but with a packed agenda in only two-and-a-half days, there wasn't a lot of time for smelling the flowers!
The Liberal Democrats used the conference to set out some big, bold, new policy ideas – you may have seen the headlines about legalising cannabis or the broadcast with Norman Lamb.
Caroline Pidgeon, Lib Dem candidate for Mayor of London, put forward new policy on protections for private renting, and former London copper Brian Paddick made it clear that we would strongly oppose the Home Secretary's "Snoopers Charter" to let spies follow everything you do on the internet (even more important, now that Labour are going to give the government a free ride!).
And, as we had guessed at our Pre-Conference Pizza & Politics, the most hotly debated motions were a move to oppose fracking and another to make the Party's MPs more diverse and better reflect the people we want to represent.
The debate on fracking was between immediate opposition, based on the Tory government's hell-for-leather rush to frack, and a cautious wait for the evidence approach. At the Pizza & Politics, our local members had wanted to cut out all of the motion's opposition to fracking; the amendment that was selected, proposed by Sir Ed Davey, did all that, but also replaced it with a commission to take evidence. Tower Hamlet's member Ed Long, speaking as Chair of the Lib Dem Engineers and Scientists, was one of those to support the amendment. In the end, though, a passionate speech from former Hornsey and Wood Green MP Lynne Featherstone and summing up from Duncan Brack saw amendment defeated and the motion passed in its original form.
The hall was even more packed for the Diverse MPs motion, including for the first time for Liberal Democrats use of All Women Shortlists. The case for the motion was, at its simplest, that the Lib Dems only have eight MPs and they are all white men. In fact, even when we have had fifty or sixty MPs, women have been poorly represented, and we have only ever succeeded in getting two non-white MPs elected. So it is time to try something drastic, all other measures that have been tried having failed. The case against was that all women shortlists may be addressing the wrong problem – colourfully put by Sarah Brown of Cambridge's analogy of sending more canaries into a toxic mine not being helped by picking from an all-Canary shortlist. Many younger women from Liberal Youth also made the speech that they could make it on their own merits – heartbreakingly echoing Jo Swinson's impassioned appeal fifteen years ago; Jo has since been persuaded to change her mind.
Whichever side of the debate they were on, there is no doubt that everyone who spoke was committed to making the Party more diverse.
Tower Hamlets had submitted an amendment to try to make the Party look outwards rather than in, and to ensure key people from all the way to the top of the Party got training in unconscious bias. A large part of this was accepted by the proposers and so was added to their motion without needing a vote.
At the end of the debate, one amendment to keep the action on diversity but remove the All Women Shortlists was defeated; while conference accepted one from EMLD (Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats) to encourage local parties to use measures to ensure diversity on their shortlists and to campaign to widen the terms of the Equalities Act (which currently only permits All Women or All Disabled Shortlists). And the motion, so amended, was passed.
With so many cards in for the debate, our GLA candidate Elaine Bagshaw was not called to speak, but she had been on the panel the night before for EMLD's pre-debate discussion alongside the party leader Tim Farron.
Neither of the seats in Tower Hamlets will automatically be affected as our vote in 2015 did not reach the lowest of the thresholds for action. Nevertheless, we will want to look closely at our options for supporting a diverse set of candidates in local and Parliamentary elections. We are resolved to improve the diversity of our local party's membership and exec as well as our candidates: we want to encourage more liberals who are women and more who are from all of Tower Hamlets' ethnic backgrounds to take part in the Liberal Democrats.
Our local Party also put in amendments for the economy motion at the start of Saturday. The longer of these was ruled too long and not taken by the conference committee, so Richard Flowers gave a speech against the motion in the time-honoured Liberal tradition of agreeing with everything in the motion but saying it didn't go far enough!
More positively, Ben Sims digital economy plans were accepted, and he got to propose them to the conference. No one spoke against until a last-minute attack from the summator of the main motion – bad form that; you are not supposed to introduce new arguments when summing up – which persuaded the conference to reject our amendment. But we are not downhearted and we are going to look into turning Ben's ideas into a full policy motion for a future conference.
Outside of the conference hall, there was the usual packed training programme and range of fringe events. Elaine, for example, was delivering training on making the fightback a reality on Saturday morning with Hazel Grove's Lisa Smart before heading up the Team 2016 phone bank, listening to Caroline Pidgeon's speech in the afternoon and talking about Diverse MPs with EMLD and finally taking up the mike for MC duties with Lib Dem Pint and introducing their "surprise guest", former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. Richard, on the other hand, was contributing to the Consultative sessions on the Friday afternoon, and could be found loitering around the Glee Club until the small hours of Saturday (and still made it to see Jonathan Fryer in the 9am emergency motion on Syria on Sunday!).
So there are lots of ways to experience a Lib Dem conference, even if you are not interested in sitting through the debates in the hall.
And if you are interested, and you're thinking about coming along, after reading about the time we had in York, get in touch.
Autumn Conference will be in Brighton in September.