Going on the choice offensive: Lib Dem Conference 2023
Jen Elford, Head of Policy and External Affairs for the Vegetarian Society, reflects on the Liberal Democrats’ latest party conference in Bournemouth.
It’s a beautiful sunlit day in Bournemouth, the sea is shining outside the buzzing Bournemouth International Centre, and no matter how friendly and relaxed I might be, introducing myself to anyone new in this conference setting as ‘from the Vegetarian Society’ usually elicits some kind of mild defensive behaviour.
They might say they don’t really eat much meat, or they deflect the implicit question by saying they’ve given up flying. But talk to a political figure and the strength of reaction is on a whole different level: “We simply can’t be in the business of telling people what to eat,” they will say. “It all just smacks of nanny-statism.” End of story.
Or is it end of story? The thing is, for any government, showing leadership on the issue of meat-heavy unhealthy eating in Britain could reap dividends, not only for health and for the state of the environment but for what is really missing in society: a reassuring sense of galvanised government action on climate change.
The words ‘choice’ and ‘liberalism’ go pretty much hand in hand. At the Liberal Democrat party conference this week I have heard the sentiment reiterated often. The Lib Dems want to ensure that people, whatever their situation, have choices, and individual freedom is a party watchword.
Tuning in as I have over the course of the last few days to the conference food and farming agenda, I’ve been struck by this theme of ‘choice’ and have been mulling over a question. How do we take this notion of ‘choice’ and make it work for us as the Vegetarian Society in what we are looking to achieve as an organisation? And how can the theme of ‘choice’ really help us to open minds, and even open doors, in talking to politicians and their supporters?
As the four-day event has rolled on, I have taken every opportunity to speak to delegates in just those terms: “At the Vegetarian Society, we want to make sure people are given the choice to eat vegetarian or vegan if they want to,” I say, “because more and more people are concerned about climate, about animal welfare or about their health, and it represents a solution.” Using this approach, I found, changed the dynamic, changed the interaction and changed the outcome.
On day one, I had a great conversation with a delegate – a local councillor who is a GP in his day job – about whether ‘social prescribing’ of more vegetarian and vegan meals for health could catch on in UK medical practice. Providing it were simply presented as a recommended option, not a strict instruction, how could it not be a good suggestion, he thought: NHS commissioners might be interested.
Over lunch on Sunday, I talked to the Lib Dems’ climate and energy spokesperson and frontbencher Wera Hobhouse MP about the opportunity to help meet UK net zero commitments by rolling out more vegetarian and vegan meals in public sector catering such as in schools and hospitals. We could, I suggested, make sure the option is presented to people as a climate-friendly action and allow them to make the choice. Hobhouse was all ears: I will be following this up with her office post-conference.
The theme of making the personal choice to act on vegetarian and vegan issues as a party member was also in the air. Over the final two days, I spoke to a number of vegan and vegetarian delegates. In the exhibition hall at the Green Lib Dem stand, the group representative suggested that any Lib Dem member could, should they wish to, join them to lend the vegetarian perspective and set policy thinking in train.
I spoke to councillor Matt McLaren during the food and farming debate shortly after his speech to Conference on the main stage. As a vegan and Lib Dem, he wanted to get across to delegates the importance of enforcing the animal welfare legislation that we have in this country, and he rightly used the party platform. A fellow vegan colleague of McLaren’s in the Young Liberals, Josh Nightingale, had gained considerable profile for the issues around food choice at a recent Young Liberals national conference.
So as Lib Dem conference rolls to a close, this is my big take away from this week. Behaviour change research backs up the idea that providing a well-signposted choice to eat more sustainably, healthily or for animal welfare, leads people to move in that direction. Few people like to be told what to eat. Hence, as an organisation, and as individual vegetarian and vegan activists, this means we want to be backing the idea of choice, but supported by future government policy and business-led innovation which ensures that the more sustainable choices are just as tasty, just as nutritious, and comparable in price or even cheaper than the alternatives.
Certainly, at this conference this week, it has proved true: who doesn’t like choice?
Image credit: Amani A/Shutterstock.com