In many ways, it was (I imagine) a pretty typical Lib Dem conference. Lembit Opik out on the streets pan-handling for popularity, obligatory bearded bloke with a "legalise marijuana" T shirt clearing his tar-encrusted throat loudly at the back of every other fringe event, an empty tube of Anusol in the bogs at the Hilton Metropole (the first and third of these circumstances may well be linked). But despite these hallmarks of business proceeding more or less as usual, all was not as I had been given to expect.
Now admittedly, this was my first party conference but as the train wheezed into Brighton station and I peered through my rain-spattered window at the black clouds being tossed about the seaside sky, I remember thinking what an apposite congregation of vapours it was to herald a Lib Dem conference at this particular moment in time.
Two years into government, "Clegg-mania" now seems little more than a malicious joke, the Lib Dems are being spanked in the polls and appear to be haemorrhaging support amid the onslaught of daily headlines proclaiming that they have traded their principles for power. As such, I imagined that the maelstrom of gnashing teeth, flayed skin and spurting blood which awaited the party leadership in the Brighton Conference Centre would make a stroll through the seafront hurricane seem like being tenderly misted with Evian spray.
But for possibly the first time ever, I was wrong.
There was no resentment or righteous indignation. No stamping of sandaled feet or hippy bong-lobbing. No protest singing or hunger striking. No peacenik brawling or vegan blood-baying. All was calm. And not even the sort of uneasy calm which is underscored by seething subliminal tension. More the sort of mindless, drooling calm which prevails in the lobotomy ward of an insane asylum.
So where was all the passion and the fury? Granted, the floating voters - or, in Tory parlance "voting floaters" - who opted for the Lib Dems as the least of three evils at the last election will have been "flushed out", as it were, by successive bungles on tuition fees, Lords reform, public sector bureaucracy and the green agenda and would have long since hopped the bandwagon out of town. But what about the remaining hard core? Surely being served up in the press every single day for the preceding two years as invertebrate lap-dogs to the slip of their Tory coalition "partners" would cause grass-roots Lib Dems to be pulling out their matted, grey hair?
The leadership were certainly still grinning like imbeciles as they fussed over the Titanic's seating plan and the waterline reached the nethermost of their chins. They were all on message, all getting resolutely behind economic "plan A" and all uniformly spouting the accepted pablum that mid-term opinion polls traditionally herald a ruthless kick in the balls for the incumbent party regardless of performance.
The problem with this, however, is twofold. Firstly, the Lib Dems have never been in power to preside over the time-honoured mid-term ratings dip so, regardless of how many mollifying platitudes their fearless leaders croon at them, getting punted in the polls will probably make them feel like I imagine every girl feels when they have their first period - terrified, bewildered and ..... gross.
Secondly, this is no run-of the mill government; it's a coalition in which the Lib Dems are perceived, rightly or wrongly, as constituting little more than a curb on the worst excesses of a right-wing plutocracy. Not a party of principle and proactivity with its own ambitions and deal-breakers but merely a crumple-zone in the collision between Tory policy and the electorate; a tattered fig leaf hovering over the gonads of the mighty. So the concern is (or should be) that the Lib Dems are getting fucked from both ends: receiving no credit for the policy victories and getting slaughtered for the concessions.
This conclusion requires no great analytical acrobatics - the papers have been groaning with it for month now - but the surprising thing is that at conference, where I anticipated a whirlwind of activist ire at the prospect of their party being washed into the gutters of history, I scarcely heard the issue raised and even more seldom answered.
The venerable Lord Ashdown gave it a shot when, on being asked by Times Editor James Harding to opine on the electoral oblivion facing his party, he said that he "trust[ed] the intelligence and common-sense of the British public." Translation: "Liberalism is inherently right so, regardless of the fact that we've had to leaven it with a sprinkling of pitiless opportunism to get into power, if the public isn't astute enough to reward our fair-weather heroism, intermittent selflessness and sporadic moral rectitude with electoral success then there's nothing more I'm prepared to do to them and I'll just concentrate on plugging my new book, thanks very much." Not spectacularly convincing, I'm sure you'll agree.
Yet neither a heckle was roared nor a hackle raised. It was as if the party had reached the acceptance stage of grief and was now concerned chiefly with assuming the most comfortable position in which to die.
Looking back across the sea of bearded (regardless of gender) faces, servile and submissive, the glassy, unfocused eyes and spittle moistened chins, I remembered Larkin's ode on the resignation of old age to mental and physical decrepitude -The Old Fools.
...do they fancy there's really been no change,
And they've always behaved as though they were crippled or tight,
Or sat through days of thin, continuous dreaming
Watching light move? If they don't (and they can't), it's strange:
Why aren't they screaming?
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