Thursday, September 22, 2005

 

Doing democracy among friends

My final post, being typed on the train on the way home - lack of time and access problems having prevented me doing more, so apologies again. I've borrowed the title for this piece from Party President Simon Hughes, who used it at the stewards' party last night - it's a great way to describe Lib Dem conference, which is always friendly, and marked by a lack of the factionalism you see in the other two.

Not that you'd know that from reading the newspapers or listening to the radio or TV, which seem to have decided almost universally that conference was a disaster - though Charles' rather good speech may have helped turn that round. As I mentioned before, I really don't think that journalists understand the party very well. The votes on Europe and the Post Office were not 'challenges to Charles' leadership' - they would have been exactly the same whoever had been leader. Conference just thought the proposals were wrong, and said so.

Anyway, after a frantic week of meetings, debates, fringes, consultation sessions, looking after the Lib Dem History Group exhibition stand (see www.liberalhistory.org.uk for the only organisation for the study of Liberal history), having dinners with friends, and drinking far too late in the bar, it's time for a lot of sleep - and then listing all the things we could have done better this time. Conference Committee will hold a debrief meeting in a few weeks' time to go over all this, and then we'll start planning for 2006 - the spring conference in Harrogate and the autumn conference in Brighton.

One of the nicest memories of Blackpool, though, will be the very last meeting I had there - an opportunity for first-time reps to come and tell us what they thought. Conference Committee now regularly organises this, as a fresh perception of what we do at conference is really valuable. About twenty or so stayed behind to tell us what they thought, and although there were a few complaints and glitches (and lots of good ideas for improvements), they seem to have had a really good week - friendly company, stimulating discussions, and good fun. The last question I asked them was whether they'd come again next year, and they all said yes. 'Doing democracy among friends' obviously has its attractions!

 

Last Orders...

Literally just come out of the Conference Hall after Charles’s speech. Walking down to log on to the lap top, looking at smiling, purposeful faces. It was a not just a good speech, setting the tone for what we need to do next, it was a great speech, laying out a Liberal Democrat vision for Britain.

The first conference after a General Election is always a tricky one, people feel tired and need to renew their focus and we need to have a discussion and proper review about future policy and direction. Since the General Election I was able to do my own thinking about why I am a Liberal Democrat. I am in a party that seeks to deliver a better way of life for ordinary people. I am proud of my party and I am proud of my leader.

There has been a low level media rumbling at this conference about Charles’s style, many vox pops needling delegates about their thoughts – do we think Charles is more of a Chairman- etc etc. Charles has just perfectly described what it means to be a Liberal Democrat, he listens to the views of the members and unlike Blair – he leads in a direction that is true to our values – not away from them.

We are leaving conference on a high, in happy confident mood, and Charles will take us forward so we can rise to the challenges ahead of us.

I know what I need to do – and I am motivated to go out and do it. I must go now and say my fond farewells to people, I’ve enjoyed Conference, but it’s time to get down to business and make the vision a reality.

 

Some conclusions on this week’s Conference, Blackpool and Blogging.

This has been a mixed Conference, delegates have asserted their right to tell the leadership what they think which will help the Party set its course for the next four years. Charles Kennedy has confirmed his style of collegiate leadership that marks a clear contrast with Blair and all of the Tory contenders for the poisoned chalice that is Leader of the Conservative Party. The conference failed to ignite the interest of the media while the mood among delegates is one of satisfaction, that the purposes of a Lib Dem conference were met, and that we are clearer about where we are heading. It’s not so much onwards and upwards, although that may be the outcome, as a steely determination to build on our General Election success and broaden our public appeal and electoral support.

Blackpool is a sorry shell of a once great seaside resort that was Britain’s premier holiday destination until someone married the jet engine to the package holiday. The development of low cost airlines has seen it spiral further down market. Other resorts have fared better but behind their parks and gardens and seafront illuminations can be found similar deprivation and social need. Like most end of the line towns Blackpool needs a massive hand up but Governments, despite meeting here regularly and witnessing the decline, have done little or nothing to assist the struggling seaside tourist industry.

Blogging is fun but time consuming. Unless it is done daily it flatters to deceive. For it to work you have to state what you see and reveal how you feel. Those who claim to be bloggers but only post their views occasionally reveal more about themselves than they might imagine. As for this temporary blogger, blogging is like conference, fun for a week but thank goodness it’s only once a year.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

 

Reality Shows

It’s taken quite a long time to get to the Winter Gardens today - I decided to walk from my B&B which is quite far out and bumped into loads of people on the way! Also just got clobbered for comment by a journalist researching for the Politics Show, he wanted to know if the Party was lurching to the left or the right and were we split on policy.

Well firstly, Conference is the place to have debates, and if it just became a gossiping ground and rubber stamping exercise that would be greatly detrimental to the Party and how we shape our policy and our direction. Now is the right time to start talking about where we go from now.

Secondly, on the big stuff, we are united. Think about Iraq and tuition fees and all the other issues that people recognise the Lib Dems made a principled stand on. Our MPs represent a diverse range of constituencies with differing issues and yet on matters of great importance we walk through the lobby united as one. I don’t think the other two parties are able to conduct debates on issues in the same way. Matters of significance are either taken out of the hands of members or spectacular U turns occur.

Talking about the others, I was thinking about what the Tory Party Conference would be like this year with the leadership contest in the offing and I think it will be comparable with the programme “Big Brother”.

A random selection of individuals who can’t stand each other stuck in a confined space, vying to win a contest that will result ultimately in short lived notoriety before the next contest begins.

Last night was interesting, I ended up having a very long conversation with Brian Sedgemore, the former Labour MP. I can’t imagine what it must have felt like to realise that the party you are in no longer has the same guiding principles that attracted you to joining it. I can’t imagine that happening to us; we can have debates about our future, yet we are united – and whatever the results of the debates are and how they shape our future – I am confident that we won’t be deserting our fundamental principles.

 

Rollercoaster of Conference

The morning began with a long awaited debate on the partial privatization of the postal service and almost immediately a sense of frustration set in. What seemed like an excellent proposal, not only to make the post office competitive in a soon to be competitive market, but also to put local post offices in a position in which they could survive, was referred back. Whilst Lamb’s policy proposal may have had strong economic credentials and had the backing of some of the growing stars of Liberal politics, it was opposed by a series of largely reactionary arguments and left me disappointed with the supposedly progressive party I had joined. Asquith’s aphorism to “wait and see” may well have been politically brilliant given its context at the time; its relevance here was certainly lacking.

Hope was revived, however, at The Economist fringe meeting where a warm reception for Laws and Cable returned my faith in the credentials of the liberal movement. I must recommend to any new or future conference attendees to attend as many fringe meetings as possible, and not just the ones with refreshments, as they provide an open forum for debate and to engage with politicians. This meeting was promptly followed by an afternoon of fun with the LDYS - just because there’s a conference on is no reason not to enjoy a quick rollercoaster ride.

Finally we went to The Observer fringe which actually turned out to be one of the best we have attended. Clegg, Laws and Teather were all typically impressive but the format allowed for a much more candid and general debate than we had previously seen. A further point of advice would be not to be put off speaking to MP’s because of their media profile but instead to feel free to go up and talk to them after a debate and you’ll be surprised how receptive they are to your opinions.

The evening started with an attendance at the end of the 3 fringe just in time to have a glass of free wine. This was followed by an LDYS meet up at a club in town and ended up back at the imperial hotel. The night that followed was filled with meeting like-minded young Lib Dems as well as some slightly older ones and lasted well into the early hours.

Highlight of the Day: The quality of the debate in the fringe meeting
Down Point: Failing to win a mug again and also loosing another vote

 

Dancing to the Beat

Post election conferences are always more downbeat than those in the run up to an election. Before a General Election all parties have a much greater sense of purpose and direction as they put the final touches to their manifestos. After an election the parties relax a little and reflect more on where they stand and where they wish to go.

The mood here is actually quite upbeat, but the direction of the party has been less clear and that has been reflected in the media. The Labour and Conservative conferences to come will suffer the same fate, particularly the Tories. No party can decide it's strategy and direction with a vacuum at the top and the Conservative Party, more than most, takes its lead from the person it elects to lead it.

The Conservatives meet here in a couple of weeks time while Labour gather in Brighton next week, yet Blair is in Blackpool. Lionel Blair is comparing Absolutely Come Dancing at the Tower.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

 

What makes us different

Hello - finally - and my apologies for taking so long to post anything. Like Jen, I'm a newcomer to the world of blogging, but my real excuse for the long silence is the fact that life as chair of the Federal Conference Committee can be a little hectic at conference. My committee - elected democratically by conference reps - is responsible for selecting the agenda for conference (out of the motions that local parties and conference reps submit to us), handling the timetable and the debates and overseeing the work of the Conference Office staff in organising the whole thing (venues, hotels, registration, documents, exhibition, fringe ...). What this means in practice is that we have a awful lot to do at conference, and that everyone blames us for everything that goes wrong. Lib Dems being nice people, however, they often tell us when they think things go well too.

So I've been here since last Friday evening, but have spent a good deal of time ever since in meetings selecting amendments to the motions on the agenda, making last-minute changes to the timings, explaining what's going on to the parliamentary party and the media, and to first-time reps, chairing and aideing debates ... you get the picture.

We've had quite a few organisational problems, but fortunately most of them haven't been visible to the ordinary Lib Dem conference-goer. Debate-wise, I think it's been a good week so far. What Conference Committee aims to do is to select an agenda which provides for high-quality debates on important and topical issues; we want to highlight the party's key policies and campaigning themes - and spokespeople - but also to give conference reps a real chance to have their say over party policy. For the Liberal Democrats, unlike the other two main parties, conference is sovereign in deciding policy.

That means, of course, that occasionally conference can defeat the 'leadership' (which generally means the parliamentary party) and the press will inevitably write this up as divisive, a slap in the face for Charles Kennedy, proof that the grassroots are undisciplined, etc, etc. This is, in general, nonsense. I think it derives from journalists' greater knowledge of the Conservative and Labour Parties, which have a history of organised faction-fighting and systematic attempts by particular groups of MPs and members to destabilise whoever they happened to have as leader at the time.

This kind of internal split simply doesn't exist in the Lib Dems. Conference has voted twice this week to amend or refer back policy motions from MPs - on Monday over the European budget, and today over privatisation of the Post Office. I'm sure some of the less intelligent newspapers will present this as another challenge to Charles' leadership, but it isn't. Conference just thought that the proposals it saw before them were wrong (or, over the Post Office, just too rushed) and had no inhibitions about telling the 'leadership' so - but it doesn't follow that it also thinks that the leadership is doing a bad job. The Lib Dem conference is genuinely self-confident, and long may it remain so.

Enough from me, and I'm off to dinner anyway.

 

Now I Remember Why We Do It!

Just returned from the Conference Hall and heard some excellent speeches – I was particularly encouraged by our consultation session called Meeting the Challenge. It’s good to know that we listen to our members and we can all play a role in shaping our future policy and direction.

That’s the difference I think between our conference and the others. Our key spokespeople are accessible, happy to engage in debate with ordinary party members and walk around the conference without a large entourage.

When it’s pelting with rain and you have a heavy bag of leaflets, negotiating dangerous dogs and gates and you’ve been out leafleting without any food for the last six hours – it’s good to remember why it’s all worth it.

Later on it’s catching up with some colleagues in the region for a bit to eat, popping into the Scotch Whiskey reception and meeting up with friends.

Off to the Imperial, the main conference hotel now, catch up with you tomorrow.

 

Highs and lows

The one advantage of our failure to go out the night before was the distinct absence of a hang-over in the morning. Our approach for the day was to try and do as much as possible, and so after breakfast we headed straight down for the opening ceremony with the Mayor, followed by a fascinating debate on Europe. I’d read a fair amount about Nick Clegg’s leadership potential and he was certainly impressive on the podium, in spite of losing the debate in the end. One thing that I’m sure any new conference attendees will quickly realise is the conflict of interests between the parliamentary party and local councillors. Whilst MPs are the ones raising most of government revenue they tend to be more fiscally responsible, whilst MEPs and Councillors would much rather have a blank cheque. This was duly reflected in the debate where the 1% cap on E.U. funding was rejected as a result of emotive calls on the projects it may end, exemplified by the furniture recycling scheme in Thorpton. Following this, it was The Times fringe meeting which had to be the comedic highlight of the conference with Robert Thomson of the Times being surprisingly amiable for a journalist. The free lunch was also a bonus although I’m sure David Smith would question whether there is such a thing. This was followed by Kennedy’s Q & A session which yielded the archetypal political trait of answering another question from the one being asked. This said, Kennedy seemed very secure in his position as leader, and once again demonstrated his trademark charm, much in the same vein as Kenneth Clarke.
The evening started with The Independent’s fringe which was my first opportunity to see David Laws speak, someone I was very much interested in seeing after having read his controversial Orange Book. As a result of his ideological differences with Simon Hughes, a highly entertaining debate ensued, with David Laws in my view coming off the better, although as always Hughes managed to pull on the audience's heart strings. Following this, the “Which?” reception was generous to offer champagne and wine for the small price of standing in a long queue. That evening in the Imperial Bar a group of LDYS members managed to meet up and the rest of the night descended into a bit of a blur, although I do know that I failed to blag my way into the Bloomburg reception.

Highlight of the Day: Being able to ask David Laws a question at the Independent and then the editor-in-chief commenting that the question sounded more like that coming from a journalist than from an audience member.
Low point: Once again failing to win a mug in the electoral reform commission quiz.

 

Soaking up the Atmosphere

It’s my first blog ever – and I’m grateful for the opportunity. I’m also grateful for the opportunity to sit down, as I have arrived late at Conference after completing the Great North Run – also a first for me.

I attended my first four party conferences as a parliamentary researcher for several MPs, which generally meant racing after them or waving a speech shouting “you’ve forgotten your notes!” It’s a nice comparison to be able to plan my own diary and also take advantage of all the training sessions on offer. Last year I chose to forgo conference to stay in Hartlepool to campaign in the by-election there – so apart from my aching knee joints from the run I’m feeling really glad to be here.

I was a candidate in the General Election this year, and conference is also an opportunity to recharge your Lib Dem batteries and catch up with great friends. I left the bar at a very respectable 2am this morning, after sipping super cocktails at the Bloomberg reception– the hottest ticket in town -and the Independent reception which was also very good.

I’m going to visit all the stands now and also check out the debates this afternoon –the key one debate is about preventing terrorism and defending civil liberties. I have to say that I immediately noticed an increased police presence this year, compared with other years although our security was always very good. This in now the climate in which we live and a pressing point of discussion for us as a party – how to prevent terrorism whilst defending our freedoms and our way of life.

Chatting to taxi drivers and generally talking to local people there seems to be a really nice buzz about us yellow lot at the moment, whether it’s; “I like that Kennedy fella” or “my council tax is ridiculous – I’m pleased you want to scrap it” – wherever you go there seems to be more awareness about what we stand for and who we are – which is good.

Right, I’m off now to soak up the atmosphere, more later…

 

Another Fine Day

Another fine day, blue sky, light wind and no need for a winter coat. I’m tied up with meetings most mornings this week. Various bods from media, culture and sporting interests are wanting to introduce themselves to me as a new member of the DCMS Select Committee.

My appointment seems to have generated a whole new range of invitations to receptions and dinners each evening. I simply can’t make them all. I missed both the BBC gathering and the Times Champagne Reception mostly because I was so engrossed in conversations a as time flew at the Independent reception last night and met one or two journalists I have always admired from afar. The media world is a close knit fraternity where journalists from TV and newsprint attend one another’s gatherings. you are just as likely to meet an ITN political correspondents at a newspaper reception.

Monday, September 19, 2005

 

Shameless Book Plug

It’s a bright and sunny day in Blackpool – climate change sceptics look worried. Surfs up with a light westerly wind and the beach actually looks inviting.

In the Winter Gardens we are debating a motion on the future of the EU – something the other parties avoid due to the deep divisions within their ranks. In the bars and on the fringe the talk is of campaigns won and victories to come. It’s as upbeat a conference as I have ever attended – it’s my 20th.

I spoke at a fringe meeting yesterday to launch the publication of ‘A Different Country Now’, a short pamphlet containing two essays. As the author of the first I agreed to turn up and answer questions. Unfortunately the pamphlet does not turn up from the printers until tomorrow, instead of a Q & A session I had to give a summary of what’s in the essay. It’s called Spin and the basic premise is that politicians are afraid of telling the truth because they cannot trust the newspapers to put the public interest before commercial and political interests. Both are correspondingly caught in a conspiracy of spin. Copies will be on sale from the Liberator Stall in the exhibition area at conference or from Kiron Reid, 48 Abbeygate Apartments, Wavertree Gardens, High Street, Liverpool L15 8HB (price £3.50 including postage).

Decided to use the famous Blackpool tram to travel up the prom to a lunchtime fringe meeting and joined a long queue of locals and someone said hello Adrian. I sort of recognised them and acknowledged their friendly greeting and then we got chatting. They were a couple from Brixham in the north on business, not conference delegates as I supposed. Before I reached the end of the queue a lady turned to me and said you used to be my MP. She’s a Blackpool resident who used to live in Torquay. One’s a coincidence, two in one tram queue gets a bit spooky.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

 

The Great and the Good

The day started where the night left off, on a coach. We finally arrived at 7:00 am to find nothing but a ghost town, surely we thought, evidence of the previous night's liberal decadence. After checking into our hotel and getting sorted for the day we set off for the Winter Gardens to take part in a tax consultant session. Our first major observation of the day was that the so called “Winter Gardens” had about as much in common with a garden as the cost benefit analysis of a land value tax with being interesting. Having said this, the fact that a flat-rate tax system was at least discussed brought some joy to those of us with free market persuasions. The afternoon brought us a first-time meeting with the LDYS group (well worth getting involved with if this is your first conference and you are under 30) followed by being rallied to vote against a rise in the minimum party subscription rate. Our extravagant plans for our first night out where put on hold as we fell asleep as soon as we arrived back at our hotel room – a warning to all new and future first time attendees, an all night coach journey will not give you enough sleep for the following night.

Highlight of the Day: Winning the floor vote on membership subscriptions
Down point of the Day: Failing to win either a mug or anorak at the exhibition stands.

Daily interview:
Today we managed to catch up with Vince Cable MP and ask him about his first conference. I’ll hope to feature a new interview everyday.

JNR: When was your first conference?
VC: I can’t quite remember but I think it was Scarborough 1983.

JNR: What did you hope to bring out of that first conference?
VC: I recall that those where the very optimistic days at the SDP with much talk of reaching 50% of the polls. For me it was a time of great opportunity where I felt I could make a real difference.
JNR: What do you find most important about party conferences?
VC: By far the most important thing is to have the opportunity to communicate with the grass roots party which is a voice not always heard through constituency and parliamentary work. Being a Liberal Democrat it is great that I don’t just take part in a party rally like other parties but instead engage in active debate.

 

Britan's Premier Holiday Resort

Following a six hour car journey from Torbay - Britain’s premier holiday resort – the greeting at the end of the M55 was ‘Welcome to Blackpool – Britain’s premier holiday resort’. The first challenge of the week is to find out who’s telling the truth.

It’s 15 years since I last visited the town and not much has changed. The older buildings reflect the glory of their Victorian heyday. Architecturally fascinating but sadly many are now falling to bits or in need of major renovation. They sit alongside more modern sixties mono-culture constructions with no architectural or other merit at all.

This is a sad place that has lost its heart. Cheap drinks and tacky gift shops can be found in every seaside resort but usually there is something else on offer as well. For what I’ve seen so far, that’s it. My constituency is in need of an injection of cash to help it retain its status as an attractive place to visit. Blackpool looks like it needs a major transplant and perhaps a super casino is the answer here.

Yet the visitors seem happy as they stagger from one drinking establishment to another picking their way round the pools of urine and vomit that appear on the streets after dark.

Older visitors stay out of the town centre and enjoy the illuminations – they are good and the reason why the town is not overrun entirely with stag and hen parties.

But we’re here too. The Liberal Democrat Conference and the hundreds of others who attend to report on our proceedings or influence our deliberations. This is a town that can still attract the largest conferences in the calendar and offer a wide range of accommodation to suit all pockets and tastes. Bournemouth is nicer, Brighton better and Torquay always warmer, but this is brash Blackpool and even if it doesn’t work for me, it works for some.
I am now pretty clear I know which one is the premier resort today and it is not Blackpool

Saturday, September 17, 2005

 

My First Blog

Hi there, as the youngest of the group I thought that I would get the ball rolling on the 2005 Conference Blog by introducing myself. My name is Julian Naden Robinson and I'm a student from Chiswick, West London. I am about to start Uni in October where I'll be reading PPE at Christ Church, Oxford. This is my first conference as I only got seriously involved in the local party last October with my friend Peter who will be coming with me and helping out with this Blog. We will shortly be leaving for our overnight 8 hour coach journey to Blackpool but I'll keep you updated on our progress when I get there. The unfortunately-timed LDYS meeting has ensured that the earliest train from London arrives too late for us to arrive in the morning. Look out for me tomorrow and keep me informed of any Conference Gossip or just come and say hello.

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