Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Putting the 'party' into 'Party Conference'

Liberal Democrat Party Conference was this weekend, and yours truly was there. Here's my report of events.

Although I am reluctant to give some of these people the oxygen of publicity (not that you can get much oxygen from my 3 readers), they were the first thing I encountered at conference. We entered behind a line of police officers with some extremely angry looking people on the other side. Now I am not a supporter of all the actions of the government, of course I'm not, and there a plenty of good reasons to be angry. I also think that protest is generally a good thing and a positive display of a liberal society. However, I like protesters to make a point. Simply standing there and calling Liberal Democrats Nazis makes it appear, rightly so or not, that the demonstrators are ignorant, lacking in decent arguments and jumping on a bandwagon of scapegoating. The fact if the matter is that this government is pretty much as far from the Nazis as we have ever been in the UK. Nazis made the greatest oppressions of and invasions into peoples' civil liberties in history of their country. This government has undone the greatest erosions of civil liberties in our country. Economically, this government is also extremely far from the Nazis. Cutting public spending is a far cry from the surge of state spending that happened under the Nazis on things like infrastructure and military. The comparison is ridiculous in every sense.

The protestors at the beginning of Day 2 (at about 10 in the morning) were much more reasonable. Some elderly gentlemen giving out leaflets warning against the NHS shake-up got their point across much more effectively and managed to hold on to their dignity. Later in the day the expected 10 000 failed to materialise. I estimate that at any one time there was less than a tenth of that number, and scarcely more demonstrators than police. Also, rather amusingly, following a slight drizzle, the entire crowd left in a very short space of time. They clearly like cuts more than water.

Some of the slogans of this bunch were also rather strange, although after being called a Nazi I had respect for any chant that achieved a comprehensible level of political comment. A popular one was 'there'll be none of you in Parliament next year'. I don't know the chances of a general election next year, but even if one is called, it seems unlikely the Lib Dems will end up with fewer seats than the Socialist Worker Party, who form a good chunk of the demonstrators. The number of USSR flags I could see also made the Nazi taunts seem ironic. There was another chant that mustered the audacity to brand the Liberal Democrats undemocratic. I'm hoping no revolutionary socialists were involved. This is a party with 'Democrat' in its name, that has fought for decades for a fairer voting system, has given the British public a chance to have a democratic say on this electoral system, and is about to create an elected second chamber for the first time in this country's history. Unfortunately they also stooped to the depths of shouting at an elderly lady who happened to be attending conference, calling her a liar. I don't know how they knew this. If I were a moderate protester there to make a valid point I would be infuriated by such idiocy, tarring me with the same brush of lowest-common-denominator faux-outrage.

The protests were well-summed up by the chair of the Social Liberal Forum, who commented that on the way in he had been called middle class by a middle class person with long hair.

However good Legolas is, he will never be more popular than Aragorn. The same was true for Cleggolas at the conference too, but I'll talk more about Farrongorn later. Clegg gave a good opening speech, and did his best to reassure members. Saturday he did a q+a. Generally these two things provided nothing new. We were re-told the list of Lib Dem achievements in government and were shown an uplifting video of Nick Clegg doing important things.

Nick's final speech was my favourite. He said quite a few genuinely positive and interesting things and left the conference on a very high note. This final speech was also more notable for being marginally less scathing in its criticism of Labour, admitting that a Yes to AV coalition of Lib Dems, Greens, Labour, UKIP and a handful of celebrities sounds more appealing than the Tories, the BNP, John Prescott and the Communists in the No camp. Although he did mention 'Alarm Clock Britain', a phrase which stinks of old politics. A ludicrous sound-bite designed to appeal to everyone, while making them feel like they're being appealed to specifically. He explained what it was. I can't remember the exact words, but essentially it is people who want to work and have to pay tax, and have to get up every morning to do so. So...er...pretty much everyone.

But generally Clegg had a successful conference. There is certainly no appetite for rebellion within the party, as I'm sure there would be in the Labour Party, and probably the Tories, in a similar situation. Collectively we understand that we are stronger united.

The conference was much more notable for the rise of Tim Farron. This was my first conference and I had not been particularly aware of Tim Farron before, although I did vote for him for President. He burst into a central role in proceedings with an effortlessly witty first speech. He is also well on the left of the party, and can get away with criticisms of the government his colleagues in cabinet cannot, which instantly endeared him to the membership.

But there's a lot more to Tim Farron than making a witty speech and appealing to the left-leaning members. He is a committed grass roots campaigned and has his feet firmly on the ground. Even during the conference period he managed to go canvassing and on the Yes to AV street stall, and he is a valuable asset to any campaign. He also spent a lot of time talking to members and hearing their views.

Chris Huhne: I saw Huhne a few times., didn't speak to him though. I heard he's a bit dismissive of normal people.

Danny Alexander: To his credit, Alexander gave myself and my liberal youth colleagues a lot of his time, and is a much more friendly and approachable man than he gets credit for. He spent time listening to our opinions and discussing economics and the referendum.

Lembit Öpik: Of course Lembit was the last person to register for conference. The hapless former MP rushed in at the last minute. His presence at conference was very visible as he spent a lot of time at the bar. I don't mean this in a sarcastic way. He is a genuinely friendly man, especially now he has no professional interest in being popular.

Vince Cable: I saw Vince, but missed the chance to see him speak. He appeared to keep a relatively low profile.

Shirley Williams: Shirley proved herself yet again with a passionate speech in the healthcare debate. She is held in almost unattainably high esteem in the party, and was even quoted by Nick in his closing speech.

Absentees (to my knowledge)
Charles Kennedy
Ming Campbell
David Laws
Paddy Ashdown

A very important debate was had on diversity in the party. I have no statistics, but there appeared to be roughly equal numbers of men and women, and significant numbers of disabled and ethnic minority members at conference, as well as a disproportionately high number of gay people. However this is not reflected in the parliamentary party where we have only 7 women and no disabled or ethnic minority MPs. Clearly this is a problem, but is also cause of a liberal dilemma. On the one hand we believe in equality and representation for all, but on the other hand we want minimal intervention, and so-called 'positive discrimination' seems to go against both of these. I generally oppose 'positive discrimination' in society, because it is still discrimination. I think the focus should be on looking at why some groups are underepresented in certain jobs. However, part of the cause may be aspiration and role models. If people don't see people like themselves in important jobs, it may seem unattainable and threatening. In Parliament, the benefits of creating role models and an example for the rest of society to lead outweighs in my opinion the case against positive discrimination, and I'm glad conference voted for measures to try and give greater representation to minorities.

I didn't know much about the healthcare bill beforehand, but the proposed amendments seemed to remedy some of the more contentious and less palatable aspects of it, and were voted for almost unanimously. Conference sent the leadership a clear message on health reform which I hope they will listen to.

Remaining Lib Dems
Clearly coalition threatens identity crisis for the smaller party, and this was agreed upon by all participants in the debate with the Social Liberal Forum. However, no clear solution was found. Tim Farron seemed to contradict himself, by saying on the one had that we needed to be less tribal but also that we should be more tribal in trying to appear distinctive. Obviously ministers can't speak out against government policy, which as they are our figureheads creates a problem.
A point which was raised that I had not previously considered was the polarisation that would be caused by a stronger, more vocal Liberal Democrat party. This would lead to hard core Tories wanting more and could reflect badly on Lib Dems forced to vote for Conservative policies, and ultimately damage the coalition. Although many Lib Dems might not see this as a bad thing.

Labour Bashing
Ridiculing the other parties is a big part of any party gathering, but for the Lib Dems at this moment in time, ridiculing the Tories is difficult if not impossible, so sometimes it feels like all our negative energy goes into Labour.
I'm all for attacking the previous government's record, but sometimes it borders on tribalism for its own sake, which I hate, and the repeated attacks on Labour, however true they may be, get tiresome to listen to.
Furthermore, good relations with Labour may not be a bad thing. The main reason (aside from the Parliamentary arithmetic) for not wanting to join forces with Labour was the idea of being tied to a dying corpse, but now they have a new leader and are ahead in the polls that is not so true. Also, thanks to electoral trends, hung parliaments remain a significant possibility in which case a future coalition with labour may be on the cards.
In fairness, it should be noted that Ed Milliband has been quite petty and tribal in the last couple of weeks, refusing to share a platform with Nick Clegg on AV.

Conference Bar
Learnt how to mingle and talked to lots of interesting people. £4.80 on a Vodka and Coke is pricy though.

I'm not really writing anything any more, I'm just assuming no-one will read this far.

1 comment:

  1. Good blog man! ... and I read all the way to the end ;-)