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My Week in Birmingham: the Liberal Democrat Party Conference 2011

Posted: 22/09/11 01:00

I'll let you in on a secret; I'm not an expert at this. I haven't had the years of experience that Nick Robinson, Krishnan Guru-Murthy or the great Andy Sparrow are blessed with, which makes me greatly appreciate the fact you're currently reading my writing and not theirs. My first Conference Season started early on Saturday morning, when the Liberal Democrats kicked off in Birmingham. An eight-hour journey up was entirely worth the hassle, and I had the chance to think about what I wanted from the approaching days. I drafted a short wish list for the season generally, but I had specific hopes for the Lib Dems. Since the poor Lib Dem election results in May, there has been a lot of negativity both inside and outside of the party. I wanted to see the key players acknowledge this, but I also hoped they would push harder to emphasise the positive things that the party were doing in government. Additionally, call me naïve, but I really hoped that I would see some political honesty in speeches. "Yes- the economy's messed up". "Yes- we dislike the Tories as much as you". "Yes- we've had to make decisions that are against everything we stand for". Looking back to the time that I made this list, it seemed more like a dream at the time, but I've watched it slowly become a reality over the past few days.

When the conference opened on Saturday, it did so amongst a flurry of reduced Liberal Democrat poll results conducted and published by the right-wing press. The feeling in the ICC was slightly downbeat at the beginning of day one, and it was clear that the party needed encouragement above anything else. I don't know who designed the schedule for the Conference, but I'm sure they're extremely bright. I think this because, in a clear tactical move to point out a key Lib Dem policy being implemented in government to delegates, one of the first items to be discussed was the proposed Lords Reforms. The policy motions throughout the subsequent days were consistent in drawing attention to more successful Liberal Democrat policies.

Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Equalities Lynne Featherstone gave the first key-note speech of the Conference, and it followed the same formula as the eleven that followed. Naturally, it included an announcement of a new policy or initiative. In Featherstone's case, this was the consultation period regarding same-sex marriages, but in later speeches it ranged from Danny Alexander's "Growing Places" fund to Ed Davey's Post Office extensions. It didn't matter that the announcements were hardly changing the world, because they were still shining a spotlight on how the party was working as a force for good in some governmental departments. Another factor of each key-note speech was the acknowledgement of the sacrifices that the Liberal Democrats have been forced to make whilst in coalition with the Conservative Party. The many apologies that featured in the speeches of figures like Vince Cable and the great Tim Farron were honest and sincere. This will have helped immensely in regaining the inter-party unity that Nick Clegg spoke so fondly of in his rally speech on Day 1. The third factor of the Conference's speeches was some embarrassing puns, particularly by Sarah Teather. The less said about that, the better. The final and most important factor that every speech needed was motivation. Before Saturday, you'd have been forgiven for describing the Lib Dems as "broken". Some party members felt beaten, and they were in desperate need of encouragement. Fortunately, the vast majority of speakers managed to inject this boost into their presentation, but the few that didn't undoubtedly stood out.

It is a safe bet to say that this was a week of Nick Clegg's life that he will have intensely planned out. He knew how important it was that he got conference week right, and he was aware of what he and his MPs had to do. Each time he walked through the gallery towards the stage you could see the determination in his eyes, although that could have just been sheer exhaustion. I think it's easy to look at Mr Clegg in one of two ways. The first, and the one that a vast number of my friends admittedly use, is the "betraying, lying, university-prospect-destroying" theory that the press just love to escalate. The second is the "misunderstood, angelic hero" approach that some core delegates at this week's conference visibly take. My approach is somewhat in between. I believe he was wrong to go back on promises he didn't just make, but proclaimed to the nation during the election campaign. The likelihood of the Liberal Democrats winning the election outright may have been slim, but speculation over a hung parliament scenario was rife and the Lib Dems knew that their chances of playing a governing role were high, should this situation occur. It did, and the party had to drop some key election pledges that Nick Clegg had promised millions of viewers whilst looking directly down the cameras during the Leaders Debates. Yet, this man is not the satanic buffoon that the right-wing press may have you believe. The changes to student fees and university funding have changed my future. However, university funding wasn't the only policy in the Liberal manifesto. This week was designed to start advertising the classic Lib Dem policies that are being put forward in Whitehall, and I think the party pulled it off.

The questions cooked up by the press regarding the party's leadership have, I hope, been somewhat subdued after the confidence that many Liberal Democrat delegates placed in Nick Clegg after his concluding speech. Such speculation doesn't help the party or the government. Rumours in the Daily Mail about Clegg contemplating resignation in 2015 caused him to speak out against the paper on The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, saying "I wouldn't believe a word you read in the Daily Mail". Regular readers will know that I am fully behind Mr Clegg's statement, but was it really wise for a political leader who admits, himself, has dwindling approval ratings, to be so outright in his criticism of Britain's of one of Britain's most popular daily newspapers?

Following his fantastic speech on Sunday afternoon, rumours about Tim Farron's leadership ambitions began to escalate. I think, when looking at this topic, you need to ignore the current Clegg regime, and look to the future. Be it months, years or decades- at some point Nick Clegg will stand down. At that point, the party will need a popular force to bring it together and drive it forward in its core direction. When answering the "will he or won't he?" question, Farron assured journalists and delegates that he does not have any aspirations to take the helm of the party. Nevertheless, if it's a matter of "should he or shouldn't he?", with his popularity, political talent and public speaking skills, he undoubtedly should.

Before I draw this Liberal Conference rant to a close, I have one major complaint to make to the senior Lib Dem team. Your new slogan; "in government, on your side" has wound me up a treat this week. Why? Because when a phrase is beamed up on to a golden background and built in to the conclusions of twelve key-note speeches, you begin think about it a fair amount. When you arrive in government, who else's side are you going to be on? When I asked this on twitter earlier this week, I was met with the predictable responses of "Tories". Say what you like about the Conservatives, but they're hardly on anybody else's side whilst serving the public in government. The Liberal Democrats are on the same side as the Tories, Labour and every other political party; they are all in politics to serve the people.

It's easy to get absorbed by the Conference buzz. When travelling through security for the first of eleven times this week, I overheard a gentleman shouting down his phone that he thought the party was "an utter joke". I'm willing to bet a month's wages that the person I saw applying for a membership after Vince Cable's speech on Monday afternoon was precisely the same man. I feared of being swept up in a similar fashion, but constant access to social media kept my feet on the ground. There are still two more meetings left in this year's Conference season, and I am sure that Labour and the Conservatives will have just as much to say as the Liberal Democrats.

I pride myself in writing a blog that isn't aligned to a specific party, and I look forward to the rest of the season. Nevertheless, it's only fair that I be perfectly honest with you, readers. I am more confident in a Liberal Democrat government, both potentially and realistically, than I was before I came to Birmingham.

One down, two to go.

 

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