Slightly later than I would have liked, and before I forget everything, here is my (illustrated) experience of this years conference:
Arrived in Brighton by train in the late afternoon. First mistake of Conference was the decision to walk from the station with my, rather heavy, bag to my hotel. However, pleased to check in to a rather stylish and friendly hotel on Upper Rock Gardens. Then off to meet some friends for a drink and soon found myself in the ‘Key Seats’ reception witnessing the terrifying speed by which a room full of Liberal Democrats can demolish a free buffet. Second mistake of Conference was to apply myself too freely to the free wine which immediately went to my head. Apologies to those who I went to dinner with that I was slightly more ‘disconnected’ than usual. However, I think I only really embarrassed myself and the Thai food was very good.
I began the first proper day of Conference, rather smugly, by attending a training session that begun at 9.15 in the morning. I managed to go to several training sessions this year at conference, which I am rather pleased about as it something I’ve rather neglected at recent conferences. The range of training topics on offer was very wide and the quality of the training, at least in the sessions I attended, was very high. I’ve come back with lots of useful new information and ideas to apply locally.
From that I headed off to the Make Votes Count fringe which I’ve already blogged about here.
(Right; Jo Swinson MP and Chris Huhne MP at the Make Votes Count fringe.)
Then I was off to the main conference hall for the first time this year. Main item on the agenda was the local government debate. This was a re-run of the local government debate from our last conference when the policy paper on offer then was roundly trashed by senior figures within the Lib Dem local government family and referenced back for further work. The new policy paper for debate this time is a significant improvement on the first one and I think makes Lib Dem policy on local government a good fit with the reality on the ground. I am still a little uncertain where we are heading with our approach to regional government, but that’s a topic for another time. I think this debate shows two things. First that the party’s democratic policy making process can work well – policies do get thrown out only to return in a much better form at later conferences. Second, that the influence of local government within the Party, which to be fair has always been strong, has become more self-confident and assertive over recent years. However, while in the past it has often been a somewhat conservative force within the party, I think it is showing some signs of potential to be a more radical force within the party and challenge some party orthodoxies. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Having said all that, I thought the debate itself, with the exception of a couple of speakers, was a rather weak one.
Back to the hotel to drop off some stuff and then onto what I think was my first trip into the splendour of the Grand Hotel, for the launch of the “2nd Cohort” of the Next Generation course. A chance for us “1st Cohorters” to check out the new lot. They’ll do.
From there straight on to the Lib Dem Blog of the Year awards. This has been talked about extensively elsewhere so I will only say congratulations to James and that I enjoyed hanging out with the wildlife.
(Left; James Graham collects his award for Liberal Democrat Blog of the year from Ros Taylor of the Guardian. Below; the wildlife)
After all that excitement I headed back to the Grand for drinks in the hotel bar and then to… ahem … ‘strut my funky stuff’ at the London Councils’ disco until late.
Monday morning and I’m in the main hall for the Climate Change debate. Action on the environment was supposed to be the big theme of this conference but, although I’m pleased to see the Party pushing this issue heavily, as an ordinary Conference delegate I didn’t feel that this came across particularly well. However, our headline policy passed at this conference to make Britain carbon neutral by 2050 is a strong one and confirms the Lib Dems as the only credible Party on the environment.
(Right; Chris Huhne MP speaks in the Climate Change debate.)
My afternoon was taken up mostly with more training sessions and then later a fringe run by the Town and Country Planning Association which was more interesting than its sounds.
Back to the hotel and then onto the very different splendour of the Old Ship Hotel for the Reinventing the State: Social Liberalism for the 21st Century book launch. This was a fascinating fringe and proves beyond doubt that the Liberal Democrats at their best are capable of a very high level of intellectual endeavour. And it is always nice to end the day with a bit of philosophy.
Then I wandered into the room next door to … ahem … strut my funky stuff at the Absolutely Equal disco until late.
Tuesday began with me missing the Planning (Community Land Auctions) debate. This was the only debate at conference for which I had considered putting a card in to speak. It was just as well I didn’t as I arrived in the hall just as conference voted to reference back the motion. OK, I admit it, I overslept. This whole issue, and the reasons why the reference back is a good thing, merits a post in itself.
So, having mised the action, I was off for a coffee and a wander round the stands.
My lunchtime fringe was ‘Local Government Question Time‘ which, despite the subject matter and the small audience, was a very lively and entertaining debate. The panel managed to turn a series of mostly dull questions from the floor into an amusing and at times prickly discussion. This was partly due to the not entirely serious approach to chairing the meeting displayed by Brendan Carlin of the Telegraph, but mainly down to Claire Fox of the Institute of Ideas playing the part of the outspoken, and slightly bonkers, grit in the oyster.
It was more training in the afternoon before I returned to the main hall to hear the last half of the panel discussion on Citizenship and Identity. I mainly wanted to hear what writer and broadcaster Safraz Manzoor, who has connections with Luton, had to say. He gave the impression of being somewhat disappointed with us Lib Dems. I do have some sympathy with this, particularly as this session highlighted the fact that some Liberal Democrats clearly have a problem understanding the concept of a “question”.
Tuesday evening was one of those collections of jumbled, disconnected, and slightly surreal sequences of events that you occasionally get at conference. This included stronger than anticipated real ale at the ‘bloggers meet’. Being handed a flyer for Brighton’s newest lap-dancing club on the way to the LGA reception. Randomly bumping into an old friend in the lanes while on my way to what turned out to be a really good seafood restaurant. Having to suddenly switch to ‘serious mode’ (after several glasses of very nice white wine) and defend my council groups record in the middle of a, shall we say, less than serious conversation during the meal at said restaurant. And finally late at night realising one of the very good reasons why romance rarely blossoms for me during conference week.
The final full day of conference was largely taken up with more training, although I was in the hall for the Better Governance debate. I also went to see Paddy Ashdown talk about the conclusions in his new book Swords And Ploughshares: Bringing Peace to the 21st Century at lunchtime.
All this worthy stuff probably excuses me for my only major skiving off of conference. I missed sitting in for the debate on Israel and Palestine which I had intended going to when I got the offer of joining some friends for a couple of glasses of champagne. Which was nice.I then spent a rather pleasant hour or so wandering around the shops in the lanes.
(Right; The Glee Club: Paddy tells a joke)
If that sounds like I was living too much of the high life my evening meal was a rushed trip to Burger King. Which meant I got to the History Group’s fringe on the greatest liberal on time.
Then to the Glee Club for a few songs before being driven out into the Grand Hotel bar by Lembit playing the harmonica.
All too quickly it seemed the final day of conference arrived and with it the leader’s speech. This was a big improvement on last year. Better delivered, some good content, and intelligently liberal. Ming did more than he needed to do with that speech.
(Right; my view of Ming’s speech)
Being in no rush to head home I took the opportunity to mull over the events of the week, and put the world to rights, over a leisurely late lunch in a seafront restaurant with my Luton colleague Chris. Then on to the train and a nap on the way home.
So that was my experience of conference. I know the above is a little light on political analysis. I had intended a more serious accompanying post on what conference meant for the party and where we go next. But it has taken me long enough to write this one!
What were my highlights of the week?
- Lot’s of really good quality training.
- Meeting up with my friend Zoe who I haven’t seen for ages.
- A rather nice cocktail bar called Gin Gin.
- Paddy Ashdown making his presence felt.
- J. S. Mill being voted the greatest liberal.
- The leader’s speech, yes really.
- Watching the changing moods of the weather over the sea on Thursday afternoon.
This content was originally posted on my old Process Guy blog.