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15 September 2008

Economist to superhero?

The East Dunbartonshire MP and foreign affairs spokeswoman on juggling her commitments at conference

By Jo Swinson

Party conferences are great fun for delegates, and I never think the TV coverage quite manages to capture the social networking element – seeing old friends for dinner and staying up late chatting over a drink.

Getting elected puts a bit of a spanner in the works of that, and while I still enjoy conference, the reality of a diary packed with early starts, speeches, debates and meetings tends to result in a more measured approach to the social side! Nonetheless last night I very much enjoyed a fundraising auction for the Liberal Democrats’ Campaign for Gender Balance ( and with the superb skills of our auctioneer Don Foster MP we managed to raise more than £3800 to help more women become MPs.

This morning I was at the conference centre before 9am, to run a training session for newly selected candidates. In total there are hundreds of hours of training on offer at conference, on everything from public speaking to election law, and teambuilding to fundraising.

Then into the conference hall to hear Vince Cable’s speech. As ever he was fantastic, and got a well-deserved standing ovation. One speaker later recalled Vince’s comment about Brown’s transformation to Mr Bean, and said that Vince himself had turned from an economist to a superhero!

Over the lunchtime fringe I spoke at a meeting sponsored by Ipsos Mori on the subject of happiness and public policy. It was a fascinating meeting with great debate between the audience and panel. However it didn’t quite match the drama of the meeting my colleague Ross Finnie MSP was at, where a protest about Kingsnorth involving a lady handcuffing herself to one of the speakers ended up delaying the whole meeting for almost quarter of an hour!

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The big debate of conference was on Monday – the Make it Happen policy paper, with its commitment to cutting taxes for the low paid, and identifying savings from Government projects to redirect to more important areas of public spending, as well as aiming to reduce the overall burden of taxation. There was a fair bit of controversy surrounding this, which led to a passionate debate with strong arguments on both sides.

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Personally I think conference is at its best like this, when you don’t know which way the vote will go, and every speech counts. I made a one minute “intervention”, which was tricky to draft concisely after getting used to the long speeches allowed in the House of Commons. But it was a good discipline; maybe MPs should subject themselves to time limits like this more often!

This evening sees me booked in to speak at two fringe events. One is on why our Parliament is so unrepresentative of the country we serve, and the other is coincidentally organised by the New Statesman – a discussion focused around the intriguing question “Is carbon reduction always ethical?”

If I’m still awake later on I hope to get to the News at Ten party – if only because they promise some music and dancing. Wonder if Vince Cable will be doing a star turn on the dancefloor?