Bloggers and journos at the Social Liberal Forum Conference

Chris Huhne's speech at the Social Liberal Forum conference on Saturday makes the main headline in the Guardian today. Sadly I missed the actual speech because I was busy on some of the admin of the conference.

I'm slightly irritated by the reference in the article to "a conference of social democrats" - although there is considerable overlap between Liberal Democrats who might describe themselves as either 'social liberals' or 'social democrats', the terms do not mean the same thing. You can read an interesting discussion about the distinctions between the two on the Liberal England blog.

(Incidently, there was a lot of media interest in the conference. I signed in BBC News, ITN, Channel 4 News, Sky News, the Independent on Sunday and The Observer)

One of my jobs at the conference was to set up interviews for bloggers with some of our star speakers - Vince Cable Chris Huhne and Evan Harris. I joined in the latter, and thanked Evan for graciously submitting himself to a uniquely Liberal Democrat form of interrogation.

Evan and I had just come from a conference session entitled "Health Reforms - good for us" which I had chaired and where he had been the main speaker. I started by asking Evan to summarise his reaction to a week that had seen the FutureForum's report on the consultation on NHS reform, and the Government's reaction to it.

He claimed a victory for the amendment that went to Spring Conference, and which was was heavily backed by the Social Liberal Forum.That led to a complete rethink by our Parliamentary party, and eventually to the 'pause' and then the climbdown that we have seen this week.

As demanded by Liberal Democrats, the revised proposals for the NHS have removed competition on price, have increased transparency and local accountability and have watered down the over-controlling brief given to Monitor (the new regulator) to drive competition.

But Evan was concerned that the FutureForum's report was written by Health officials, who appeared to have been instructed to find new ways of driving competition. Liberals Democrats are not against choice and competition, but in times of austerity other principles are far more important - quality of care, cost effectiveness, fairness, access to services, reduction in health inequalities - and yet these seem to have been downgraded in the report.

That was followed by an interesting discussion about the most effective ways for Liberal Democrat members to influence Government. Our party policy is determined by members at Spring and Autumn conferences, and the experience over the Health and Social Care Bill has shown just how powerful this can be. But it is, as someone said, a rather 'clunky' way of doing things and leaves a six month gap between conferences during which much can happen without members' involvement. Evan outlined the roles of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Policy Committees, where the Federal Policy Committee has a crucial part to play. Evan has also been involved with the SLF in developing conference motions to strengthen that link. However, this may seem rather arcane to readers who are not interested in internal party politics.

You can read a comprehensive record of the interview with Evan over at Spiderplantland.. Lisa Harding who writes that blog asked Evan a couple of thoughtful questions about the human impact of political upheaval. Evan had unexpectedly lost his seat after a campaign which had become personal and hurtful. He was surprisingly gracious and not at all bitter about the experience. However, he was worried that the success of the attacks on him would have two consequences, namely that it would encourage this unpleasant style of campaigning in the future and that it might put off good candidates from standing.

Would he stand again for Parliament? He would not commit himself on this question - it depended on the outcome of the Boundary Review. But even though his achievements from the outside have been momentous, I can't see him wanting to stand on the sidelines for ever.

From left: Andrew Emmerson, Andy Strange, Evan Harris, David Grace, me, Lisa Harding


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