After spending a long weekend at Liberal Democrat conference, I can confirm that EU berets are firmly in fashion, you should never mention the M (moderate) word in their company and there is nothing they like better than a sing along. Here are the three other things we’ve learned at Liberal Democrat Conference.
1. Liberal Democrats are passionate about electoral reform.
I spent much of Saturday sitting at the Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform stall, talking to members about the pressing need for change. The top thing I heard, beyond the recurring “where’s the Liberal Democrats Against Electoral Reform stall” joke, was that members see electoral reform as a fundamental feature of building a fairer society.
Many members saw the introduction of electoral reform as not just about gaining their deserved number of seats, but the radical decentralisation of power back to voters.
It’s only with a fair voting system like the Single Transferable Vote, which can sweep away uncontested and safe seats, that residents will be able to hold their representatives to account. A fair voting system isn’t just a tool to get a fairer society, it is at the core of a fairer society.
Commitments to the importance of electoral reform turned up in multiple policy papers debated over the weekend, including Liberal Democrats’ Priorities for a Better Britain, and Power for People and Communities, which called for STV at the local level, plus radical decentralisation of power to the lowest practical level.
Talks from our friends at Unlock Democracy and Make Votes Matter were also well attended.
2. There’s growing concern in the party over mandatory voter ID
We were happy to be invited by the Political Skills Network and the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust to discuss our new report on the voter ID trials, A Sledgehammer to Crack Nut, to a packed out fringe meeting.
With people sitting in the isles and a crowd outside the door, ERS Research Officer Michela Palese talked us through the findings. We were also lucky enough to have the new Liberal Democrat mayor of Watford, Peter Taylor on the panel, where one of the trials took place.
Mayor Taylor explained why Watford Council decided to take part in the trial, when so many other councils had refused. As banning those without ID from voting was in the Conservative’s 2017 Manifesto, and councils volunteering to take part could choosing their own ID requirements, the new mayor saw a real risk that only Conservative Councils would take part, so only the strictest forms of ID would be tested.
By running a trial of the most widely available form of ID – namely poll cards, there would at least be options in the final report.
We heard from many activists in the room who had campaigned in areas with far stricter regimes. One activist told us how a younger voter had turned up with their bank statement on their phone, only to be told they had to go home and print it off for it to be counted as ID. Another told the story of an elderly gentleman with a non-western name trying to use his bus pass, only to be told that, as their name on the electoral roll was in a different order to their one on their bus pass, it wasn’t valid.
3. Support for Citizens Assemblies is growing
From spontaneous mentions of citizens assemblies around the world at the conference stall, to Ed Davey raising the need for radical ‘deliberative’ forms of democracy from the main stage, the time is coming for new ways of doing representative democracy.
Time after time assemblies of randomly selected citizens have proven themselves more than capable of making complex decisions on matters politicians can’t seem to solve. From the Irish assemblies on abortion and gay marriage, to assemblies in Britain on local government, Brexit and social care, normal people are stepping up.