Lib Dem Conference: Kennedy's roused rabble politically modifies the food debate

The Sketch

SOME OF the motions at the Liberal Democrat conference are not exactly testing challenges to the pundit's powers of foresight. It's true that delegates have an unusual appetite for deciding nothing, rather than deciding something imperfect - which results in a high number of motions unexpectedly returned to sender - but there are still issues on the agenda that appear virtually delegate-proof.

Even in a party this wedded to the idea that the good is the enemy of the perfect, it seemed vanishingly unlikely that they would vote against the reconstruction of Kosovo or in favour of hate-crimes. I had wrongly assumed that the debate on GM food might fall into the same category - given that the issue was perfectly engineered to arouse activists' mistrust of big business and technological determinism.

The early speakers confirmed initial suspicions. "We wouldn't be able to put the gene back in the bottle", punned one, urging delegates to toughen up the proposed moratorium on commercial growing of GM crops. The next added to the sense of global corporate conspiracy against our digestive systems, by revealing the existence of the Codex Alimentarius, a little- known international body that governs food safety rules. The name suited the general paranoia perfectly; its members sounded as if they gather at night in disused quarries, wearing monks' cowls and executing any hapless tourists who stumble on their dark machinations.

But then Tim Farron came to the podium. The motion was driven by "reckless, inaccurate, craven populism" he said. It was a surrender to "tabloid hysteria", evidence of a "reborn Luddite movement". I braced myself for mad-cow moos of disapproval, but the hall listened thoughtfully to his tirade. And when he slammed down his final soundbite ("I refuse to accept that knowledge should be a banned ingredient") they actually applauded.

Other like-minded speakers followed. "One-quarter of our genes are the same as those of the cabbage", announced Veronica Watkins, making the point that nature herself takes a liberal view of genetic modification. "Fortunately the other three-quarters make most of us different". The "most of" was rather pointed, given that she was swimming against the general tide of prejudice, but the delegates all chuckled indulgently. If there was a brassica tendency in the hall, everyone clearly thought it was seated elsewhere.

It wasn't all going the dissidents' way but there were plenty of them and, by my admittedly partial assessment, the mood of the delegates seemed finely balanced between rejection and approval. Then one speaker swung the conference squarely behind the motion again. In the "offices held" section of his speaker's card Charles Kennedy had written "Leader of Party". It was, said the session chairman proudly, striking evidence of the egalitarian nature of the Liberal Democrats. It would have been more striking still if Mr Kennedy hadn't been called, or if he'd been rebuked for over-running his allotted five minutes - but then there are limits to democracy.

Earlier Dr Evan Harris had warned the delegates: "Do not fall into the trap of being led by tabloid scaremongering". Mr Kennedy, by contrast, thought the populist bandwagon looked a perfectly sensible way to travel: "The consumer and citizen is king" he reminded delegates, and, what's more, "we've got to be bolder in our commitment to the environment".

In this case, oddly, boldness takes the form of being cautious to the point of paralysis, but that's neither here nor there. Mr Kennedy's stage-managed intervention was high-minded in its tone but at heart it was an appeal for the party to behave politically not rationally, to put public prejudice before private knowledge.

In a nice Freudian slip an anti-GM speaker had earlier begged delegates to "vote for the emotion". After Mr Kennedy's canny bit of rabble-rousing, they did so overwhelmingly.

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