I don’t want to be excessively partisan, but for the second time this weekend at conference, I’m getting a really good feeling about the Liberal Democrats.
The first was when we heard that a senior, experienced MEP thought our party was the best way forward.
But the second has been our response to the Digital Economy Bill and a huge online campaign from internet activists within the party and of no party.
Yes, it’s true that our team in the Lords invited the anger of the online activist fraternity. A lot of resentment has been brewing about the Digital Economy Bill as a whole, and when even the Liberal Democrats seemed to be untrustworthy and in favour of censorship, that anger spilled over and was directed at us.
I live in a lot of online communities as I suspect many of you who read this do. And it turns out for a lot of those communities, I’m “the Liberal Democrat” people know. So I got those emails and tweets of concern. So it is my responsibility to make sure I take steps both to change the direction of our party to be more in tune with real online people, and then to let those real online people know what we are doing.
It turns out that Lords amendment, though poorly implemented, and scary in isolation, was actually well intentioned. It takes the censorship powers away from an individual minister, currently Lord Mandelson, and hands it to courts and due process. Really, though, we don’t want censorship at all.
But what makes me really proud of the party is how so many of our internal party democracy systems have worked so well to address the issue once it was raised.
Bridget Fox, one of our party’s more impressive prospective MPs, was alerted to the problems by angered Islington constituents. She leapt into action and rousted 25 fellow PPCs into expressing the concerns and anger to the party’s parliamentarians.
The parliamentarians responded – and a debate began.
Danny Alexander MP (Vice Chair, Federal Policy Committee) makes significant commitments, saying the party will try to further change the Digital Economy Bill in the Commons and to draw up new policies after the election.
Bridget wrote an excellent emergency motion which found favour with internet activist and wavering party supporter Cory Doctorow and submitted it to conference. Lib Dem conferences are carefully designed to let real party members discuss issues. And because we understand sometimes things come up at short notice and don’t fit into long timetables we reserve some slots for emergency motions.
And then party members working together at conference selected Bridget’s amendment for debate, and that’s what led to this morning’s debate. You can find a written summary of that here by our own Iain Roberts and a full audio recording of the debate here.
And then party members debated the motion and voted overwhelmingly in favour.
In what other major party would that be possible? Which other party still has conference policy debates? Which other parties have leadership teams prepared to enter into debate, and not hunker down with a bunker mentality and try and defend the indefensible against all comers?
The motion we have passed is excellent, and sets in train a new IT policy working group and more detailed work on intellectual property law. Result!
We must not however rest on our laurels. There is more work to do to rebuild our reputation in the eyes of many digital activists. Some people are still contacting me with links to the original stories, weeks after the picture began to change and the party began to respond. So those of us who live online lives need to go back to our online communities and spread the good news. We need to make sure that the working groups, once established, take the right positions on digital freedoms. And we need to keep up the pressure on our parliamentary parties to do the right thing when they have the opportunity to improve the Digital Economy Bill.