A personal view of Conference 2011: I walked away from conference on Wednesday with that bloody annoying mobile phone company’s strap-line in my head. I certainly didn’t expect that when I headed out on Saturday.
In fact to be frank, for the first couple of days of conference I confess that I thought it was more grey than orange. Dreary grey Brummie clouds hung menacingly over a huge ugly grey conference building that seemed packed to the rafters with earnest young men and women in grey suits. I have never seen so many corporates at a Lib Dem conference. Welcome to power and influence I suppose. Even the mood was pretty grey. I thought at first it was gloom and despair (or was that just Vince’s speech!). But actually it was more steely than gloomy, more resolute than resigned. But you could almost feel the burden of power weighing heavily on the party’s shoulders.
So….a grey, dull conference. But dull is good. Dull means no reckless, immature muscle-flexing from conference played out for all the nation to witness. Dull means no leadership humiliations. No pictures of 2000 or so voting passes held up high. No hurried press calls to “explain” what the hell just happened. Dull is good.
It was father funny to see so many media types scratching their heads and tearing up their scripts. Lib Dem conference all serious and grown up. With conference refusing to play ball, there was just the the danger that some journalists might actually have to leave the comfort of the bar/media centre and go do some proper journalism around the place. Perish the thought.
Actually conference was not as grey as it first looked. It was also very yellow. I was struck by the conference hall – didn’t it look very, very yellow compared to last year where we saw much more blue? Doubtless this is all part of the “distinctiveness” strategy. And what about that fabulous dress Miriam turned out in on the last day?
It was also very very orange. Never have I met so many economic liberals in the bar, in the fringes, in the conference hall itself. I don’t know how many have always been there keeping a low profile and how many were new. Some were definitely new . They were university students, graduates, first jobbers, newbies to conference. They get liberalism; they are internationalists; they stand up for civil liberties; and yes they are orange bookers. They are definitively NOT Tories. Some were clearly old guard – some even had beards! They had long thought that liberalism had been neglected by the party. Too many years in opposition had allowed us to get flabby – promise spend on everyone and everything. That policy was being driven by a small highly organised minority that had over the years actually got out of kilter ith the mainstream of the party….
But every political party has it’s factions. Factions are good. They expose weak arguments , encourage the generation of ideas, test and often improve ideas. And you see this nowhere else like you see at conference. On line, behind the anonymity of the pc, people can be hideously rude. Vicious even. You only have to have read the comments on the Liberal Vision blog to see how much anger and bile we have been subjected to. At conference – and especially at this conference we saw the factions of the party talking to one another, laughing with each other, challenging each other, and agreeing with other. I know the media don’t like that – maybe some party members won’t like it either… but from the sharp end i saw it happen…
So the party has grown up. The conference was mature. The factions more engaged with one another. I guess when times are tough and the stakes get raised you pull together. I certainly hope so.
Sad to say however – I do not think that I can say the same for some of the party’s leading lights. Yes I get the need for us to be distinctive. I understand the urge to show at every opportunity that we are not “Tory patsies” . But there is a fine line between being “distinctive” and being destructive. And that was a line several senior MPs crossed. I doubt it was intentional. I could be generous and say that they were simply playing to the gallery. I could be harsh and say they had one eye on the next leadership challenge. I certainly don’t buy the idea that this was co-ordinated. But the outcome was that for a while the conference descended into a cacophony of increasingly vitriolic anti-Tory rhetoric. The Tories had “tainted us” and their political tactics were “evil”. (Farron). They were ”too city dominated” and the Conservative Right were the “descendants of those who sent children up chimneys” (Cable) or Tea Party extremists “slavering” to cut taxes for the rich (Huhne). I was particularly sad to see two of our senior Government ministers leading this unseemly assault. What were they thinking?
It was a sign of the maturity of the conference that this did not go down as well as you might expect. Yes, conference had enjoyed the bloody spectacle at the time. But in the bar the talk was definitely NOT about how great this all was. Many of those you might expect to be relishing the Tory bashing were shaking their heads. There was genuine concern. ”It’s gone to far”…”I’ve got to work the the Tory councillors next week…. “ Why aren’t we giving Balls or Milliband a kicking?”… ”It looks so crap on TV” … “How can he go back into cabinet after saying that?”…. well you know its gone too far when Shirley Williams calls time on the Tory bashing.
So praise be that come Wednesday, Nick gave possibly his best speech at conference since becoming leader. Guns blazing. Fire in his belly and a gleam in his eye. His closing speech to conference was a masterclass in the right way to get across the party’s distinctiveness. Talk about what you have done, what you want to do and (most importantly) tell people why you are doing it. Some of our critics called the speech lean. I call it perfectly measured. It was a serious speech, but a passionate one. . Rarely have I seen the conference react so warmly to him.
There were two elements of his speech that were particularly revealing about where Nick is taking the party. And it is good news for all of us. Firstly I don’t recall having ever heard the word “liberal” used more in any speech at our conference. He talked of our “liberal spirit“ and “liberal values” of “a liberal nation” and a “liberal society” . I confess I gave a tiny cheer (in my head – not out loud of course) on each and every one of the 19 times he used the word.
Secondly, he used the word “Labour” 13 times… And what he says tells us a lot….
“Another term of Labour would have been a disaster for our economy. So don’t for a moment let Labour get away with it. Don’t forget the chaos and fear of 2008. And never, ever trust Labour with our economy again”
Nick was on top form on Wednesday. He has put liberalism front and centre of our party and made Labour the focus of his scorn (ruling out any chance of a LibLab pact) and got a standing ovation in the process. This does not surprise me. We should be concerned that David Cameron wants the liberal badge for himself. And we should never ever let him have it. It’s ours. So when our leader sends out a very clear signal that he will defend it come what may, we should applaud. We should also remember how much we hated the Labour party in power. The money they spent, the public sector ballooning out of all reasonable size, the pensions they stole, the chronically unfair education system they left us. Of course we should applaud when our leader says “never,ever trust Labour with our economy again”. Damn right.
The party walking out of conference on Wednesday had the hint of a spring in its step. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that we were collectively skipping our way down to New Street Station. But we have got through a hideous year. We had a sober, grown up and uniting conference – with a clear shift back towards the centre ground – the best place for this party to be. The future is definitely looking a tiny bit brighter and a lot more orange….Tags: 2011 Lib Dem conference, conference review, Liberal Democrats