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354 – Selling the pass
09 July 2012 (11:49:06)

Last year, Liberal Democrat conference voted against police accreditation for representatives. This year, the party’s committees have ignored that and caved in to pressure on dubious pretexts. David Grace wants to know why

There are very few motions that are supported by both David Laws and Gareth Epps but, last year, Federal Conference passed one.

This year, party officers ignored it. They didn’t lose it, forget it or fail to notice it. They considered it and just decided it didn’t matter. The motion was on accreditation of conference representatives, why it is illiberal and what we expected our elected officers and MPs to do about it.

Imagine news from our Liberal colleagues around the world about the misuse of power by the governments of their countries. What if Yabloko told us that Putin’s security people prevented their members from attending a party conference? What if Israeli Liberals told us that the IDF prevented Palestinian members from attending their conferences? Our condemnation in each case would be unhesitating. Freedom of assembly and of association are fundamental rights essential to any democracy. They must not lie in the gift of the police anywhere, including the UK.

In 1903, the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party held its second congress in London. It had been kicked out of Belgium at the request of the Tsar. The British government received a similar request but refused to stop the congress. This was an assembly of professed revolutionaries prepared to use violence to achieve their ends. Britain at the height of its Edwardian imperial splendour under a Conservative government did not fear them. This was in an era when various disgruntled groups had let off bombs in the capitals of the great powers. Fenians had bombed the Metropolitan Line not many years before. Yet today our regard for our civil liberties is so feeble that Conservatives, Labour and now Liberal Democrats have accepted that the police may veto your attendance at your party conference.

CRIMINAL OFFENCE

You don’t have to have committed a criminal offence to be denied the right to attend. It is enough that you refuse to provide evidence of your identity to the state, a choice that we fought the last government over and thought we had won when identity cards were dropped.

If, however, you do provide evidence, the police can still advise that you should not be allowed to attend. We don’t know what grounds they have to give for their advice but presumably intelligence acquired by means they will not reveal to you is one source. This was the basis for control orders, detention without trial, a favourite with dictators across the world throughout history, which we opposed and again thought we had stopped. Of course, the coalition hasn’t stopped them; it has just adopted the tactic of marketing people and spinners everywhere. It has renamed them – TPIMs, instantly forgettable unless you happen to be under house arrest yourself with no opportunity to challenge the evidence.

So what did Liberal Democrat conference last September in Birmingham decide? The resolution condemned: “The system of police accreditation adopted for this conference which requires party members to disclose personal data to the police and which is designed to enable the police to advise that certain party members should not be allowed to attend.”

Conference specifically called upon the Federal Conference Committee, “to negotiate security arrangements for future conferences which protect the privacy of members’ personal data and which respect the party’s constitution and internal democracy.”

Note that this was a decision, not a suggestion or a polite hint. So why on 14 April this year did the FCC Chair, Andrew Wiseman, invite readers of Liberal Democrat Voice to give their opinions on what should happen, saying that there were “widely differing views within the party” and “strong views on both sides”?

I must have missed the constitutional amendment that lays down that a poll of LDV readers can rule on the validity of conference resolutions. Andrew did say that FCC had “taken into account” the conference resolution. Well, that’s nice to know. I would also like to know what FCC did between September 2011 and March 2012 when Sussex police asked for accreditation.

In the end, after LDV readers’ almost unanimous support for the conference position, FCC voted by a majority of one that the case for accreditation was not made out. I’ll say. The police had cited the bombing in 1984 at the Conservative conference in Brighton, which was planted before the conference began and would now be found by security searches. Accreditation would not have prevented that bombing. Apparently the police also cited Breivik’s attack in Norway. Nobody carrying the armament Breivik took uninvited on to the island would get through physical security. Accreditation would not have stopped that massacre. Did the police really have no better arguments for accreditation?

Now we come to what supporters of accreditation regard as the clinching argument – insurance. They argue that if we do not accept police advice on accreditation, then we will not get insurance for our conference and be unable to hold it because of the financial risk. This argument was accepted by the Federal Finance and Administration Committee (FFAC) who took it upon themselves to overrule FCC and insist on accreditation in Brighton. Apparently their authority, as an unelected sub-committee, to overrule an elected committee and a conference resolution is derived from the fact that finance is involved.

On that basis, I imagine that almost any party decision could really lie in the hands of this modern version of Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety. Opinions differ as to the truth of the insurance argument. Listen carefully to those who use it. Never have I heard them say, “insurance was refused” but always “insurance would be refused”. Has the argument actually been tested? Can anyone tell us how many insurers were asked?

Defenders of accreditation also deny that the police have the final word. FCC has decided that a triumvirate of officers can reject police advice – the chair of FCC, the chief executive and the president of the Party. You will find this power to exclude members from conference nowhere in our constitution. In particular, there is no provision to empower anyone to reject the election of conference representatives by local parties.

DEMOCRATIC CENTRALISM

There is an expression for the idea that top officials can do such a thing – democratic centralism. It was this very doctrine that Lenin espoused in London in 1903 and over which he split the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. Last year’s resolution also called upon Tim Farron as president “to ensure that conference arrangements respect Article 6 of the federal constitution which provides that Local Parties elect representatives and that no other body within or without the party has the power to exclude in advance their attendance at conference.”

I’d like to hear from Tim what action he took. Funnily enough, the officials who have arrogated this power to themselves did reject police advice in Birmingham over one individual and, guess what, the party did not lose its conference insurance. Just how far do we have to follow police advice in order to be insured? Does anyone know?

Can we as Liberals accept that internal party democracy can be discarded at the whim of the police or the demands of insurers? There’s a public/private partnership we could do without. Conference also recognised that FCC alone would not be able to confront this problem. The resolution called upon “the parliamentary party and Liberal Democrat ministers to question the current police guidance on accreditation and to seek to persuade the Home Office to change guidance on current practice to reflect the rights of association and assembly and the internal democracy of all political parties”.

I will be asking what they did. In particular, what did Lynne Featherstone do? The policy of accreditation at major party conferences is not just at the whim of a particular police force. It’s much worse. It comes from the Home Office, which also provides the funding for the exercise. That’s why we don’t have accreditation at spring conference, because they don’t fund it. Obviously terrorists don’t go to spring conferences or ALDC conferences or town hall meetings or any of the hundreds of assemblies attended and addressed by ministers throughout the year.

Like everyone else, I accept the need for physical security at conference, the searches which make all of us, and conference centre staff, safer. Like FCC, I do not consider that the case for accreditation has been made out. You might consider that this is all a storm in a teacup, that it’s all a lot of fuss about a minor inconvenience.

That is always how defence against attacks on civil liberties is depicted. How many times did we hear the last Labour government recite the mantra that we have to balance security and liberty? Did we not reply in Benjamin Franklin’s words “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety”? First FCC collaborated with accreditation and then conference rejected it. Then FCC rejected it and FFAC imposed it. So now we have police interference with internal democracy, party officers awarding themselves powers we have not given them, and finally conference decisions ignored and overruled by an unelected sub-committee. Erich Honecker would be proud.

What is left of our party democracy? Liberals have always championed the rule of law and that includes the contract, which we make with each other in our party’s constitution. Where are our champions now? What have our party officers and our MPs and, yes, our ministers done to stand up for our basic civil right to assemble, to elect our representatives without interference from above or from outside the party?

This issue will not go away. I don’t care which committee with which set of initials tries to stop me going to my party conference. I will not go away. As a party, our devotion to liberty and our commitment to our internal democracy lie at the heart of what makes us different and valuable to our country and our voters. We throw these away at our peril and, if we do, then in a small way but of fundamental importance, the terrorists have won.

David Grace tabled last year’s motion against conference accreditation

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