Free to be young – and other great stuff from Spring Conference

I made the trip to Birmingham yesterday, getting up at some ungodly hour, for the Lib Dem Spring Conference. Unfortunately I could only stay for the one day, but what a great day it was.

The highlight of the day was our policy paper on young people, entitled Free to be Young. This policy is overwhelmingly positive, focusing on why we should celebrate our young people, and help them to make a positive contribution to society. I know loads of teenagers who are brilliant role models, and get so frustrated when certain sections of the media portray them as nothing better than ‘hoodies’ hanging round causing trouble. Of course there are a few people of all age groups that cause trouble – but the Labour government spend vast amounts of money locking up young offenders, and hardly anything on schemes to prevent them offending in the first place. Where’s the logic in that?

But what else went on…?

I got to hear the main speech by Vince Cable, which was extraordinarily competent as ever. The prospect of George Osborne being our next chancellor of the exchequer, frankly, fills me with dread.

I also attended the Q&A session with Nick Clegg. Which other party leader is brave enough to offer himself up for open questions from the audience? Nick does this up and down the country, and was grilled just as hard (if not harder) by Liberal Democrats in Birmingham. He answered all questions well and showed just how well he has grown into the role of leader since his election.

At lunchtime, I attended a fringe meeting by ALDES with no particular agenda, but speeches by the great Evan Harris and also Julian Huppert from Cambridge. Two excellent speakers, and real assets to the party. There are not enough scientists in the House of Commons. Hopefully that will change come May!

Unfortunately I missed the debate on Freedom, Creativity and the Internet this morning, being back in Yorkshire, but I needn’t have worried. After a slightly embarrassing episode in the House of Lords a couple of weeks ago, many technologically-minded Lib Dems were up in arms. This motion, passed overwhelmingly, puts us back on the right course to develop some sound policy on IT and the Internet, which is sorely needed.

Conference is a great place to meet people. I bumped into my old friend Jane Brophy, who was preparing a speech against the main environment motion, saying it didn’t go far enough. As a regular dissenter myself (only the Liberal Democrats will let people like us stand on the main stage and speak against party policy) I tried to give a few pointers. In the end, her speech came across very well.

Overall the conference reminded me why I’m a Liberal Democrat. Not only do I agree with the overwhelming majority of our policy, but the very way we make it is completely different from the other parties. I simply can’t imagine having anywhere near as much freedom to discuss, debate and disagree in either Labour or the Conservatives. I’m now looking forward to the main conference in Liverpool in September and, of course, the general and local elections in May (or whenever!).

The only down side to the day was the train journey home. Not only was Birmingham New Street station gruesome as ever, but my train back from Manchester to Hebden was packed to overflowing. We were literally crammed in like sardines. This is partly due to the reduction in trains to Rochdale following the Oldham Loop Line’s conversion to Metrolink – however Northern Rail have shown precious little enthusiasm for actually doing anything about it.

In London with Nick Clegg

Chris Sawer with Hilary Myers and Nick Clegg

Last week a group of us from Calder Valley went on a day trip to London to The Wave climate change protest. It involved getting the first train out of Hebden Bridge in the morning, and the last train back in the evening, but was a great trip for several reasons.

Firstly, the train down was organised by the Co-op, and apart from being very cheap, was full of others going to the protest so there were balloons galore, plenty of banter, and leafleters for every environmental campaign going wandering up and down the train. Not to mention some great musicians.

Secondly, we arrived at the protest at the same time as Nick Clegg, and we grabbed the chance of a quick chat with him about the campaign in Calder Valley. It was great to meet up with Lib Dems from all over the country to hear Nick’s speech, along with those of Susan Kramer and Simon Hughes. I recognised many faces from conference, and chatted to some new people too.

It was extremely important that we put pressure on the government ahead of the Copenhagen summit to make it clear that if we don’t do something drastic about CO2 emissions pretty soon, it will be too late for millions of people around the world – most of them in the poorest countries – who will die as a result of flooding, crop failures, or wars caused by the mass migration that will result.

In the light of recent speculation about e-mails at the University of East Anglia, it was also important to have a big demonstration to be shown on the news, and keep people informed that global warming is real, and that we must do something about it. It is clear that the overwhelming scientific consensus backs the hypothesis that the planet is heating up because of the greenhouse gases, principally CO2, that mankind is pumping into the atmosphere at ever increasing rates. There are a few sceptics, of course – critical thinking is essential for good science to be separated from bad – but pretty much everyone who has actually studied in a related area has come to the same view.

One analogy I heard and rather liked is that you’re about to get on a plane, and suddenly the pilot and an aeronautic engineer come running out and tell everybody not to get on board as the plane is too dangerous to fly. A vet and a dentist stroll to the front, announce that everything’s ok, and get on board. Who would you trust?

The march itself passed off well, although it was a bit slow getting started so it was more-or-less dark by the time we actually got to parliament. It was hard to get an idea of how many people were there, but estimates ranged from 20,000 to 40,000 which is not bad for a cold December day. I had my home-made Calder Valley Lib Dem placard, which attracted comment from a number of people.

One week on, I think Ed Miliband is doing a reasonable job in Copenhagen. Not as good as Simon Hughes would do, of course, but not too bad considering. I just hope he is able to persuade the other industrialised countries that it is our responsibility to lead on this issue. I know that China are building huge numbers of coal-fired power stations, but they’re only following our example. We led the industrial revolution in this country. Now it’s time for us to lead the green revolution too.