Thursday, September 22, 2005
Doing democracy among friends
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!
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.
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
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
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
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
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!
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 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
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
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
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
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.
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
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