Chair’s Report to the Annual General Meeting 2020
It is now 18 months since the last LDEG AGM, which took place at the York Conference on 16th March 2019. The reason for postponing this year's AGM until this month is down to the Coronavirus pandemic, which caused the Party's Spring 2020 Conference to be cancelled and the Autumn 2020 Conference to be held online.
At last year's AGM the new LDEG Executive had just taken office following elections a few weeks earlier, and I should like to take the opportunity now to thank my fellow officers and LDEG Exec members for their support and hard work through these very challenging times. I would also like to welcome Caroline Voaden - the former leader of the Lib Dem Group of MEPs in the European Parliament until 31 January - to the LDEG Executive as Vice Chair (Campaigns), following the resignation of James Thellusson.
From March to December 2019 the main focus of LDEG was to stop Brexit from happening and during that period we supported the party's participation in local and European Elections in May 2019 and a General Election in December 2019. On 31 January, we had to accept the UK formally leaving the European Union, something that we had fought so long to prevent. For the past 7 months Covid-19 has dominated all aspects of our society including its political life and looks likely to continue to do so well into next year. As I will outline in my report, LDEG had been forced to examine our way of doing things and with Brexit having happened - the very remit for our Group's existence.
Several members of LDEG Exec, including myself in the South West, were selected as candidates to stand on the party's lists in last year's European Elections, with Phil Bennion being successfully elected to represent the West Midlands in the European Parliament. Much of our activity last year was taken up with supporting the campaigns to secure a People's Vote and to Stop Brexit, holding anti-Brexit street stalls across the country and joining the national marches in London thereby ensuring that the Lib Dems and LDEG had a recognisable and leading presence on those demonstrations.
In the General Election of December 2019 several members of LDEG Exec stood as Parliamentary candidates, including myself in Torridge and West Devon, and as you will see from the Treasurer's Report we donated £2,250 to the election expenses of 9 LDEG members standing in constituencies across the country. In such an important election we believed it important to support candidates, who would promote a pro EU message and we are confident that the support we gave in those individual constituencies did make a difference to their final results and were a good investment.
The result of last year's General Election - notably losing our leader Jo Swinson and our Brexit spokesperson Tom Brake from Parliament - and the subsequent departure of the UK from the European Union on 31 January shocked our Group and its members to the core. Both Jo and Tom had led our opposition to Brexit and were good friends to LDEG. We had not succeeded in preventing our country leaving the EU - one of our fundamental aims which lies right at the heart of LDEG, as stated in our constitution. We hardly had time to digest this disaster before we were hit with Covid -19. In normal times , as we are still in the Brexit transition period until 31 December 2020, we could have expected that the terms of leaving the EU, with or without a deal would play a dominant role in our political life and have the full attention of the British public. However the pandemic has changed people's priorities, and whilst LDEG supported efforts to secure an extension to the transition and are currently doing the same to push Johnson's Government to achieve a Deal with the EU before the end of the year - the public's focus has been elsewhere. We anticipate this situation could well change in the new year as the impact of Brexit begins to really hit home and we need to be ready to adapt to this situation.
LDEG's influence in the party's policy towards Brexit and Europe has developed over the past 18 months. Whereas some AOs and SAOs struggle to meet with their relevant spokesperson in the Parliamentary team once or twice a year, I hold regular meetings or calls with our Brexit spokespersons. Throughout last year up to the General Election I was invited to join Tom Brake's weekly Brexit meetings and until recently had regular dialogue with Alistair Carmichael MP. Following the election of Sir Ed Davey as our new Party Leader and the establishment of his new Parliamentary team, I intend to continue that regular contact with Christine Jardine MP, now that she has taken over the Brexit portfolio in the Commons, and with Layla Moran as Foreign Affairs spokesperson. We also have good relations with many of our peers - in particular Baroness Ludford, Baroness Northover and Lord Newby - who hold the Government to account over Brexit in the Lords. At our recent debates at party conferences our panel of speakers have included Tom Brake MP Brexit spokesperson, Jo Swinson Party Leader, Luisa Porritt MEP Deputy Leader of Lib Dems in European Parliament and Lord Newby Leader of Lib Dems in the Lords.
Alongside five of my colleagues from LDEG Exec, I sit on the party's Federal International Relations Committee ( FIRC ) and chair that body's CEUB sub committee on matters relating to the EU post Brexit. The recent motion that was debated and adopted overwhelmingly by Conference as the party's new policy on Europe was put together after much input from members of LDEG Exec and steered by me through various party committees to the point where it was submitted to the party's Federal Policy Committee. It is an example of how consulting with LDEG resulted in a Europe policy that reflected the view of the majority of party members and received their strong endorsement.
It is worth noting here that following the UK's Exit from the European Union, LDEG exec debated and reaffirmed our belief that the UK is better off as a member of the European Union, that Brexit is wrong and that we should do all that we can to ensure that the benefits of EU membership are recognised and promoted in our party. We stated our commitment to support the UK rejoining the EU but acknowledged that right now is not the appropriate moment to campaign to rejoin and hence as an Exec - with two exceptions - endorsed the motion which was submitted to the Federal Conference Committee FCC and in its amended form, which better reflected our original proposed motion, was adopted at Conference as party policy. However, we recognise that we need to be prepared for the moment when we can campaign to rejoin. In the meantime we hold this Government to account over its lies and broken promises concerning Brexit and defend the rights of EU citizens in the UK and those of UK citizens in the EU. I am sure that some members of LDEG would have preferred us to go further in pushing the Party to campaign right now to rejoin the EU, but I am convinced that such a position would not have been supported by the majority of party members - as was proven at Conference where the amendment to include an immediate campaign to rejoin was overwhelmingly defeated - and would not in the long term have helped us to achieve our aim of EU membership . As a party we have to first regain the trust of the electorate by being seen to be focused on the issues that matter to them and secure political influence through winning seats at a local and national level.
It is important that we cooperate with other pro EU political parties and organisations. I represent the Lib Dems on the National Council of the European Movement and am in regular contact with New Europeans. Stephen Dorrell, the Chair of the European Movement joined our panel of speakers for the LDEG Fringe debate at the recent online party conference.
A key remit of LDEG is developing relations with our sister parties across Europe - not just in the EU - and whilst the elections last year and Covid -19 have prevented us from holding our study trips - in 2021 we are planning one to Berlin to meet with FDP and another to the Danish Democracy Festival and Copenhagen to meet with Radikale Venstre and Venstre. Priority for places on these trips will as always be given to LDEG members and details will be announced if possible early next year. In the meantime taking advantage of our greater use of online meetings, we shall be hosting regular online zoom calls exclusively for LDEG members to hear from and ask questions of politicians from our sister parties to learn about the political situation in their respective countries, as well as gain a better understanding of their policies and priorities. The intention is to hold a call with a different party each month - kicking off with D66 from the Netherlands, FDP from Germany and Radikale Venstre from Denmark.
At last year's Autumn 2019 Party Conference the LDEG Fringe debate was one of the most popular fringe events, where we invited Ilhan Kyuchyuk, an MEP from our Bulgarian sister party, to join our panel of speakers. The debate was videoed and shared in the first instance exclusively with LDEG members, so that LDEG members, unable to attend the conference or who were unsuccessful in getting into the debate, were able to watch it in their own time at home. At this year's online conference we invited Sophie In't Veld MEP from our Dutch sister party D66 and Lisa Chambers the Brexit spokesperson from our Irish sister party Fianna Fail to join our panel of speakers for what again proved to be one of the conference's most popular events.
Maintaining relations with our sister parties in the ALDE Group is going to be critical going forward. Several LDEG members sit on the ALDE Council and like myself attend the ALDE Congresses, including last October in Athens, as part of the Lib Dem delegation. Like all our events this year the ALDE Congress due to take place in Stockholm has been postponed, but I would encourage LDEG members to put themselves forward as delegates to future ALDE Congresses.
Without our MEPs and their offices in Brussels our contacts with our sister parties and MEPs in the Renew Group will also be critical. Several members of LDEG Exec are based in Brussels with strong connections to EU institutions and our Vice Chair Caroline Voaden will also be a great help in this respect.
LDEG is being encouraged to work closer with other organisations in the Party including other AOs and SAOs. In mid October LDEG jointly hosted with Lib Dems LGBT + and LIBG an online debate about LGBT + rights in Hungary and Poland. I am currently in discussion with ALDC to look into the exchange of campaign teams with our sister parties to help out in each other's elections, and with LDDA to highlight the rights of the disabled across Europe.
National and Regional Party Conferences are important for LDEG in making party members aware of our work and are our best opportunity to recruit new members. A key role of our regional representatives on LDEG Exec is to facilitate speakers on European topics and host stalls at regional conferences. Last year's General Election meant that most regional conferences were cancelled and this year due to Covid-19 they will be held online. Despite these challenges our current membership stands at 200 and we have managed to convert them all to online payments, as we are no longer able to accept cash or cheque payments. At the recent online party Conference we were asked to produce a promotional video, which ran throughout the Conference informing party members of LDEG's work and the benefits of membership and which we intend to use to recruit future members.
In normal times LDEG Exec would plan to meet 6 times a year including at both Autumn and Spring. Since March we have switched all our meetings to online and will continue to meet virtually for the foreseeable future. Travelling to meetings involves cost and time for LDEG Exec members and in some ways working on line has brought benefits. In future it is likely that we will continue with a mix of virtual and physical meetings.
Over the past year improvements have been made to the LDEG website, which is constantly being developed to offer a better service for our members and promote our work. We regularly use social media to connect with our members and a wider audience. The private LDEG Facebook page has 700 members and twitter account @libdemeurope has 2,741 followers. We send out a weekly newsletter update of news and events and regular emails from the Chair and other officers, which over 1500 supporters have signed up to receive. Members of the LDEG exec are regular contributors to Lib Dem Voice and have letters and articles published in the national media including most recently several in The New European.
I have recently participated in the Review Group looking into the AOs and SAOs of the party and look forward to the publishing of its recommendations.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this report that it has been a challenging 18 months in many respects - with highs and lows - but I am also excited for the future of LDEG and the increasing role it will be able to play in the coming years, developing relations with our sister parties, improving understanding of European politics, influencing policy in our party, shaping opinion in the wider public and ultimately helping to take the UK back into the European Union. For those Lib Dems who are particularly interested in European affairs and politics we want LDEG to become their natural home in our party.
17 October 2020