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Reflections from a political road trip

25 September 2015

Richard Messingham provides an update of the Law Society's undertakings at the Lib Dem and UKIP party conferences, as well as a more detailed review of the day-to-day activity.


Starting in a warm and sunny Bournemouth, the Liberal Democrats met once again as a party of opposition to consider their future direction with a reduced parliamentary party and a new leader in Tim Farron. There was much serious policy debate at the conference with the Society contributing its views based on our newly launched Priorities for justice (PDF). The president, Jonathan Smithers, spoke at a fringe event on funding access to justice, as well as meeting with the party's parliamentarians and members with an interest in legal affairs.

While the level of media and third party attendance was reduced, there were a greater number of members attending, which made it more of an activist conference than has been the case during the coalition of a showcase of Liberal Democrat ministers making policy announcements addressed to the nation, not the conference hall. However, Farron's messages at the beginning and end of the conference on creating a new home for disaffected centrist Labour members, and giving clear support for membership of the EU and migrants, attracted some positive media attention.

Following a couple of days in Bournemouth, the media and third party observers like myself returned back to the office before then travelling up to Doncaster for the UKIP party conference. On the back of the party's success in gaining a third of all UK MEPs and four million votes at the general election, but only one MP – an issue that has led to the party actively supporting proportional representation – has meant it's become a significant feature of the conference season. Farage's speech at lunchtime today had a dual focus on ensuring he and his party play a major role in the forthcoming EU referendum, and also making a significant play for former Labour voters who had backed the party significantly in 2015.

The location of the conference for the second time running in Doncaster was an open incursion in Labour territory. However, it remains to be seen if the UKIP threat will be discussed at the Labour conference, which starts in Brighton this weekend. Once again the president, Jonathan Smithers, will attend to meet with the party's frontbench spokespeople to discuss the Society's priorities for justice, as well as finding out more about the party's recently announced review of legal aid led by former Ministry of Justice minister Lord Willy Bach.

More on the Labour conference next week, when I'll update you on the key policy debates, and a look ahead to how the Society will be making sure the Conservative party is aware of the our key priorities for justice.

Sunday 20 September

Liberal Democrat fringe event on civil liberties

Speaking at a question and answer fringe event, Rt Hon Alistair Carmichael MP, former Secretary of State for Scotland and current Lib-Dem home affairs spokesperson, Lord Paddick, the Lords Home Affairs spokesperson, and Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, Lords Justice spokesperson, discussed how civil liberties and human rights remained an area in which the Liberal Democrats could and should demonstrate leadership. Other points of note included:

  • Mr Carmichael suggested that the recently appointed Shadow Home Secretary Andy Burnham "was not always in the vanguard to protect civil liberties", referring to his time as a Home Office minister under Tony Blair.
  • Lord Marks remarked that on Conservative proposals to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights, that his party might have been inclined to support it had the full recommendations of the Commission on a Bill of Rights been taken up. However, he said it was clear from Conservative rhetoric that this was not their intent.
  • He went on to say that access to justice had come under serious attack by the Conservatives, pointing to cuts in legal aid provision and the weakening of judicial review. His party would campaign against further cuts, he pledged, both inside Parliament and outside.
  • Lord Marks said that the Joint Committee on Human Rights was effective in holding the government to account.
  • An attendee said that access to Blackberry Messenger services during the London riots would have enabled the police to prevent the riots spreading.
  • Lord Paddick said that the spread of the riots was not caused by Blackberry Messenger, but by rolling coverage on the news. Images of rioters looting and walking past police undeterred had been widely seen, leading to copycat rioting elsewhere. Furthermore, much of the communications between and from rioters had been on "open source media", such as Facebook, he said.
  • Their inability to access Blackberry Messenger had been used as an excuse by the police, he argued. If the police and security services were given greater access to communications data the sheer extent would overwhelm them, rendering it useless.

Tuesday 22 September

Lord (Willy) Bach appointed to lead review into legal aid

As part of new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn's shadow ministerial appointments and re-shuffle, Lord (Willy) Bach, Shadow Lords Justice Minister and former Shadow Attorney General, was tasked by the Shadow Lord Chancellor, Lord (Charlie) Falconer, to initiate a review into legal aid. The Labour Party said it firmly believed the Coalition's reforms had a disastrous impact on access to justice, stating its disproportionate impact in terms of the lack of help and advice available and the effect it is having on the vulnerable in society.

Read the Labour Party press release

Wednesday 23 September

Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron MP wins plaudits for 'passionate' and 'stirring' conference speech

Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron has been widely commended by seasoned political observers for his party conference speech. In his first big leader's address, Farron said the Lib Dems were now the only "credible" opposition to the Conservatives and invited liberals from other parties to join him, and said it was his mission to get the Lib Dems back in power. Mr Farron touched upon the issue of the EU referendum as well as immigration, criticising David Cameron's handling of the refugee crisis and called on the government to opt in to the EU plan to "take our share of the refugees".

Friday 24 September

UKIP's annual party conference takes place in Doncaster

This is the first time the party has met since their disappointing performance at the polling stations in May, with the EU refugee and migration issue a hot topic. Divisive leader Nigel Farage today addressed the party faithful, making the bold statement that the campaign for the UK leaving the EU is his priority, not his party. Mr Farage believes the events on the beaches of Greece and the border of Hungary have vindicated his predictions of "biblical" migration to an EU which cannot control who comes in.

Tags: politics | Westminster weekly update | Labour | Liberal Democrats | UKIP | party conferences

About the author

Richard Messingham is head of public affairs at the Law Society. He and his team are responsible for supporting the president and CEO to manage the Society's relationships with Parliamentarians, Ministers, civil servants and other major stakeholders of direct relevance to solicitors.
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