Someone else's crisis

A unique experience for a Liberal Democrat Conference in recent years, another party is having the l

The first morning of Conference has a reassuring air about it. I had arrived the previous night after struggling through flash floods and rush hour traffic. This morning the sun was shining and all seemed right with the world.

Better still, and this is a unique experience for a Liberal Democrat Conference in recent years, another party was having a leadership crisis, not us. What will the media talk about now? Nick Clegg is secure in his office with the support of the party and nobody is taking out nomination papers to oppose him.

This year Liberal Democrat Conference has started a day early in an effort to make it more accessible to those who cannot get time off from their jobs. The first big debate therefore took place on the Saturday afternoon at which representatives discussed a wide range of radical initiatives to give UK Citizens a voice in Parliament.

Proposed measures include a more efficacious system of petitioning MPs and People’s Bills, whereby the six legislative proposals that receive the most petition signatures from registered voters in any given year would be guaranteed a second reading debate in the House of Commons. Proposals to give people the opportunity to veto unpopular Acts of Parliament through a referendum were rejected. Representatives were concerned that allowing people to trigger a plebiscite gathering one million signatures in 60 days would be open to abuse and would undermine the sovereignty of Parliament.

With Lembit Opik MP and Baroness Ros Scott lobbying behind the scenes for their respective Party Presidential campaigns I spent Saturday dodging canvassers for the respective camps before doing what Liberal Democrats like to do best. OK, it might take second place behind socialising in bars. I spoke at a fringe meeting on electoral reform.

At present the Welsh Assembly does not have the power to change the way that local Councils are elected. I tried to put that right through a private members bill only to see it voted down by Labour AMs. I am not giving up.

And then it was onto the blog awards. I was shortlisted for Best blog by a Liberal Democrat holding public office, the Tim Garden Award for short. It is the third successive year that I have been shortlisted for this award and was stunned to win it this year.

Although this is a Federal Conference it is also an opportunity to get publicity back home. All of the Welsh media have decamped here so we take every opportunity to get our message across. Sunday morning therefore involves a visit to a homeless hostel in Bournemouth followed by the launch of a new paper on affordable housing in Wales.

A confidential roundtable meeting with the Police Federation follows and then into the main hall to watch the Nick Clegg Question and Answer session. It really is a busy conference and because it is being held a week earlier than usual I am able to stay for the full five days without being called back to Welsh Assembly meetings.

Peter Black is Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly Member for South Wales West

Getty
Show Hide image

Inside a shaken city: "I just want to be anywhere that’s not Manchester”

The morning after the bombing of the Manchester Arena has left the city's residents jumpy.

On Tuesday morning, the streets in Manchester city centre were eerily silent.

The commuter hub of Victoria Station - which backs onto the arena - was closed as police combed the area for clues, and despite Mayor Andy Burnham’s line of "business as usual", it looked like people were staying away.

Manchester Arena is the second largest indoor concert venue in Europe. With a capacity crowd of 18,000, on Monday night the venue was packed with young people from around the country - at least 22 of whom will never come home. At around 10.33pm, a suicide bomber detonated his device near the exit. Among the dead was an eight-year-old girl. Many more victims remain in hospital. 

Those Mancunians who were not alerted by the sirens woke to the news of their city's worst terrorist attack. Still, as the day went on, the city’s hubbub soon returned and, by lunchtime, there were shoppers and workers milling around Exchange Square and the town hall.

Tourists snapped images of the Albert Square building in the sunshine, and some even asked police for photographs like any other day.

But throughout the morning there were rumours and speculation about further incidents - the Arndale Centre was closed for a period after 11.40am while swathes of police descended, shutting off the main city centre thoroughfare of Market Street.

Corporation Street - closed off at Exchange Square - was at the centre of the city’s IRA blast. A postbox which survived the 1996 bombing stood in the foreground while officers stood guard, police tape fluttering around cordoned-off spaces.

It’s true that the streets of Manchester have known horror before, but not like this.

I spoke to students Beth and Melissa who were in the bustling centre when they saw people running from two different directions.

They vanished and ducked into River Island, when an alert came over the tannoy, and a staff member herded them through the back door onto the street.

“There were so many police stood outside the Arndale, it was so frightening,” Melissa told me.

“We thought it will be fine, it’ll be safe after last night. There were police everywhere walking in, and we felt like it would be fine.”

Beth said that they had planned a day of shopping, and weren’t put off by the attack.

“We heard about the arena this morning but we decided to come into the city, we were watching it all these morning, but you can’t let this stop you.”

They remembered the 1996 Arndale bombing, but added: “we were too young to really understand”.

And even now they’re older, they still did not really understand what had happened to the city.

“Theres nowhere to go, where’s safe? I just want to go home,” Melissa said. “I just want to be anywhere that’s not Manchester.”

Manchester has seen this sort of thing before - but so long ago that the stunned city dwellers are at a loss. In a city which feels under siege, no one is quite sure how anyone can keep us safe from an unknown threat

“We saw armed police on the streets - there were loads just then," Melissa said. "I trust them to keep us safe.”

But other observers were less comforted by the sign of firearms.

Ben, who I encountered standing outside an office block on Corporation Street watching the police, was not too forthcoming, except to say “They don’t know what they’re looking for, do they?” as I passed.

The spirit of the city is often invoked, and ahead of a vigil tonight in Albert Square, there will be solidarity and strength from the capital of the North.

But the community values which Mancunians hold dear are shaken to the core by what has happened here.

0800 7318496