Taking the fight to the frontline - a note about party political conferences

David Donnison

I went to the Labour Party’s Brighton Conference to help with the stall set up there by our colleagues in VES. Our members may like to know what happened and to reflect on plans for future political conferences.

It is always a pleasure to work with Michael Irwin, VES’s chairman, John Oliver, their Director and their colleagues. They had just come from the Liberal Democrats’ Conference which had, by a large majority, called for a major public inquiry into the law and practice surrounding death.

We had a reasonable site but were approached on the first morning by another exhibitor whose massive display would not fit into the space allotted to him. Would we swap? Since his was right by the main entrance to the Conference Centre we were delighted to do so.

A modest but steady flow of people came to talk to us thoughout the week: MPs and MEPs, trade union and constituency delegates, visitors from Britain and abroad - Mrs Blair among them - other exhibitors, and staff of the Centre. Most were supporters of our cause; many were moved to talk with us by experiences of death in their own families; no-one was overtly hostile; and most people took living wills, leaflets and other material away with them.

Some trade unionists and Party members said they would ask the VES office for speakers, or for briefing to help one of their own people lead a discussion of euthanasia at a branch meeting. Annie Lindsell came to speak at our fringe meeting which was a thoughtful, supportive gathering, but rather poorly attended - probably because we had no major political figures with us. (Must do better next year!) VESS members who were so moved when Annie spoke to us last year in Aberdeen would have been dismayed to see how weak she had become. Motor neurone disease restricted her breathing and made every movement difficult. She had kept going out of sheer, belligerent determination to demand before the High Court her right to a physician-assisted suicide. No candle in the wind: more an incandescent flame, finally running on empty. Our movement owes her a great deal.

I attended the fringe meeting organized by HOPE - “Health Professionals Opposed to Euthanasia” - and spoke briefly there. This meeting was held outside the security perimeter which encircled the Conference Centre and neighbouring hotels, so those who came - a larger crowd than ours - were local medical and nursing staff, with a sprinkling of local VES members; not Conference delegates. We were addressed by people well known in their movement but there was no politician. I would not trust any of them to treat Annie Lindsell with the respect she deserves.

The Conservative Conference, held the following week, refused to let VES in - as they did last year. Nevertheless, to show they are a serious group who are not going to be brushed off, VES invited a wide selection of their MPs to come to a fringe meeting. None of them replied.

What should be our own policy about future political conferences? I believe it is important for VESS to be there:

However, mounting an exhibition at the national conference is expensive - about £10,000 this year. To this £10,000 must be added the time, travel and hotel expenses of the team who go to the conference. VES sent four.

With the support of our colleagues in London, I suggest that we try to send someone to help them at some of the national conferences, but do not share costs. It would be their “show”. Meanwhile we should exhibit at the cheaper Scottish conferences of all the main Parties and invite VES to send a representative to join us at any they would like to attend. I asked a couple of Scottish MPs if the Scottish Parliament would be able to take up the issue of euthanasia. They hadn’t a clue; but we should be prepared.