Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Bournemouth Diary – Part II

More notes on the 2006 Conservative Party Conference

An unusual experience as I pass the barrier on my way into the conference – a Lib Dem prediction of Tory victory. I am handed an account reprinted from “Freedom today” by a Lib/Dem county councillor describing some problems with the Spanish justice system. A handwritten addendum, apparently by the same gentleman, refers to David Cameron as “our future PM.”

Today’s sessions and fringe meeting include a number of sessions on the economy, including a barnstorming performance from George Osborne. Perhaps the most powerful expression I take away from the various discussions on economics is “fixing the broken rungs at the bottom of the ladder”. The point being is that as the economy grows most people get better off but some do not, and many of these are those who start from the worst position. Hence measures to ensure that these people get a share in the fruits of growth are “fixing the broken rungs at the bottom of the ladder.”

After William Hague made a typically witty and brilliant speech I was slightly surprised to see an instantly recognisable figure at the corner of the conference being interviewed: it was the Reverend Ian Paisley. My initial reaction was surprise: Ian Paisley’s policies do not exactly align with those of the Conservative party. However, none of the major British parties has ever imposed a complete ban on members of other mainstream parties attending their conferences. You usually find a few Labour or Lib/Dem MPs and councillors speaking at fringe meetings or running stalls on particular issues at Conservative conferences and vice versa.

David Trimble was invited to address the Conservative conference when he was leader of the largest group in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the DUP now has that status. Ian Paisley was not given the opportunity to address the conference, but somebody in the Conservative leadership presumably decided that, particularly given the Trimble precedent, we need to show that we are willing to talk to all parties committed to democracy on how to obtain peace in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland came up again in the following session on communities and devolution. The shadow Northern Ireland secretary, David Lidington, mentioned that the Conservatives are currently the only party which aspires to form the government of the UK and which puts up candidates in every part of the UK: nobody else puts up candidates both in Northern Ireland and on the British mainland.

I remember how that came about, and it was not something which the party leadership imposed from the top: basically a number of people from Northern Ireland came along and said that they wanted to join the Conservatives. When the party hierarchy was distinctly cool to the idea they started lobbying grassroots Conservative associations to support allowing residents of Northern Ireland to join and within a couple of years they had persuaded the majority of constituency delegates at conference to pass a motion to that effect. Lord Lane, the head of the “voluntary” wing of the party, then recommended to the ruling “National Union Executive Committee” that the conference vote should be respected, and it was. A wise person said to me at the time that if the party leadership had attempted to impose a policy of organising in the province from the top down it would have got absolutely nowhere, but because it came from would be members and the grassroots on a “bottom up” basis there might just be a faint chance.
To the best of my knowledge we have never yet elected a Conservative Assembly member or MP in Northern Ireland but we do have a few councillors. Who knows, perhaps the idea that politics in Northern Ireland might someday be based on the bread and butter policies affecting people’s lives like schools, hospitals, and tax, rather than community-based politics based on religious or national/unionist dividing lines may yet some day begin to make headway.

Today's conference closed, as had yesterday’s with a workshop known officially as “Meet the candidates” and informally as the “Dragon’s Den.” Each time a group of selected or “A list” candidates were invited to give a five minute presentation on an idea they would like to see become party policy, and the conference were invited to vote on which idea they would like to see given further consideration. There were some interesting ideas about helping teenage mothers, making the “Sure Start” scheme more effective, and direct democracy. The winner today was the Conservative candidate who will be standing to take over Michael Howard’s seat and who proposed an updated version of Enterprise Zones (Acorn Zones.)

It’s been an interesting, friendly and enjoyable conference so far. Everyone is looking forward to see what David Cameron comes up with tomorrow.

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