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16 September 2008

Joining the Lib Dems…

Conference season sees various New Statesman staff dashing around the country to take part in fringe

By Ben Davies

Down to Bournemouth to join the Lib Dems. Not literally you understand. No, I’m actually here to chair a couple of New Statesman-organised fringes: one a debate on whether digital equality matters. Another – still to take place at the time of writing – on Network Rail.

Now I have a similar attitude to computers that I do to cars – I love to drive but have next to no idea as to what’s going on under the bonnet. But the issue of who we help gain access to technology is vital because it interlinks with all sorts of issues to do with education, opportunities and in the end employment. It’s also interesting to hear the different views about this subject. For example, is access to the internet a human right, given all the opportunities for research, transactions and socialising it gives us?

Among the guests speaking at the fringe meeting on digital equality we had Andrew Pinder of BECTA and one of the former Blair ‘tsars’, Richard Younger-Ross MP, Helen Milner of UK Online Centres and Becky Hogge wearing her Open Rights Group hat.

The great fear, if you’re chairing one of these things, is they’ll be lacklustre so a certain amount disagreement, of give and take is vital. In the end we covered a lot of ground from the slightly off subject issue of downloading music and copyright to the numbers of UK adults now using the web. Apparently just more than two thirds.

The audience seemed to enjoy it shouting rubbish at each others comments and getting stuck in to the arguments. Well sort of. Actually it was fairly polite on the whole.

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Anyway being down here is a good chance to wander around a bit and get a sense of the atmosphere at this year’s gathering.

I made the mistake of remarking to Lynne Featherstone MP, who I met in a corridor, that there didn’t seem to be many people here this year. She disagreed – apparently the number of registered attendees were a record high. Still doesn’t feel like it as you walk around the BIC conference centre. It really is curiously empty, although Lynne said that was because of all the training sessions the party now runs.

The Lib Dems are pleased with themselves for ratifying a plan to cut taxes for low and average earners but attending a briefing ahead of Nick Clegg’s speech tomorrow there was a sense the wheels might already be coming off that particular bandwagon. Certainly a lot of the Fleet Street crowd were having quite a bit of fun quizzing Danny Alexander who was fronting the press conference.

Still it’ll be interesting to see tomorrow what sort of mark Clegg makes. Obviously he’ll get a warm welcome but one can’t help but wonder if the Lib Dem thunder has been stolen by David Cameron’s ‘liberal’ Conservatives.

Next stop Manchester to see the state Labour’s in.

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