Saturday, September 25, 2010

That Was The Conference That Was

I always enjoy party conference and my 24th Autumn Conference, and the party's first in Government, was no exception.

Apart from the higher level of security it was little different to others on the face of it, although the mood was definitely a little different.

Lib Dem Conference goers have got used, over the years, to the media coverage of our conferences bearing little relation to what those of us there experienced. If anything I would say there was less of that this time.


Journalists may have to come to Liverpool expecting bust ups and for the leadership to be given a hard time, but in general that didn't happen and their reporting was more subdued.

I thought the article by Andrew Sparrow in the Guardian - 'Lib Dem Conference: 10 things I've learned' - summed the change in attitude up well.

I think it also reflected the steady change in mood of party activists too. A week ago many didn't really know what to expect. There are very real concerns about the impact of the coalition, and particularly the coming cuts, and party conference might have been the place that concern would turn to anger.

In fact the opposite happened. Nick Clegg and other leading figures rightly acknowledged the concerns, encouraged a feeling that we were all part of a team that would face the problems together, and moved on to set out the very real achievements we have already made in government.

Mingling freely

Nick, Cabinet Ministers and Ministers of State mingled freely (and as usual) with party members around the fringes and in the bars, and spoke freely and frankly about how things are going.

From a personal perspective it was great to see people I have known for 20 years or more chatting about what it is like to be a Minister and what they are starting to achieve. For example I had a long chat with Jeremy Browne, who I have known since we were fighting NUS elections together, about the life of a Minister and how hard he is working to continue to serve his constituents (something Jeremy does exceptionally well). It was also good to chat to (the greatly underrated) Danny Alexander about his onerous responsibilities and his expectations about what was to come.

Where this conference differed from previous ones was that there was a much more serious tone to a lot of the debate and discussion.

No longer are the Lib Dems discussing policy in the abstract, but policy that might be implemented by the Government, or at least feed in to its thinking.

No stifling

It was also very positive to see that there has been no attempt to stifle debate. The leadership clearly disagreed with the motion about Free Schools and Academies, but did so by joining the debate. There was no attempt to stifle dissent, and no return of the kind of stroppiness we would have seen back in Paddy's day.

The other factor that I think played a big part in settling people's nerves was the strong promotion of the the Fairer Votes Referendum. From the rally last Saturday onwards the party promoted the importance of the referendum, an issue which broadly unites the party and gives people a very positive reason to get out there and campaign.

Humble organiser

For me it was a quiet conference. Being back in the role of a humble Constituency Organiser my time was largely my own. I helped run one training session, and had a couple of meetings to attend, but apart from those spent more time in debates and chatting to folk than for many years.

It was great to have time to sit down and talk to people rather than the hurried hello in passing that I had got used to in my years as a Campaigns Officer. It was also great to socialise with many of my former colleagues and, in particular, to finally get to see the hilarious Will Howells perform at one of the local Comedy Clubs.

All in all this conference did the job it needed to do. We left with a sense that while Nick and our ministerial team are set on their coalition course, they do understand the concerns of members and activists. We also left with a long list of genuinely liberal achievements which have been made, are being made and will be made soon.

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