Report from the Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton
Just to report back to you following a visit to the Lib Dem conference in Brighton, by fellow County Councillor Tim Stone and me, together with my husband Hans. None of us had ever been to a conference before; I thought it was time to see the Lib Dems in action on the national stage; and the fact that Hans could sail us all on his boat made it a strangely enticing proposition – so we did it!
The sailing bit: we departed before dawn from our mooring in the River Orwell, Suffolk. It took us two eleven-hour days down and two more days back up, out through Felixstowe and Harwich, through the shoals and sandbanks and wind farms of the Thames Estuary where Tim got violently ill, having gone down below to read Lib Dem policy papers, on past Margate and Ramsgate, then round the first of the white cliffs and into the convergence of cross-channel shipping into Dover – a charming, small marina nestled beneath Dover Castle with a clear view of France just across the water. An overnight rest, up again at 5:00 AM to catch the tide to carry us on past Dungeness, Eastbourne, the spectacular cliffs of Beachy Head, the Seven Sisters, and finally Brighton. The weather gave us a little bit of everything – moments of hanging on for dear life and moments of sublime steady progress – and the sunrises and sunsets were to die for.
Once arrived, the boat acted as our little hotel, while the tail end of a hurricane lashed Brighton and popped a few fenders. Tim had brought his pensioner’s bus pass and I my folding bike, and both of us got very excited about using these extra forms of transport to complete our journeys to the conference centre every day, in true transport geek fashion. The conference centre itself was heavily guarded by police and we had to go through airport style check-in each time; for some reason all the security guards wanted to run an extra check on Tim, every single time. Inside there were stalls for all sorts of lobby groups including metropolitan transport experts from the Midlands, Lib Dem associations of teachers, councillors, and Greens, etc. Outside the conference centre was a constant cluster of lobbyists handing out pamphlets and reminding us, always very politely and sometimes handing out cupcakes to get us to really listen, about the fringe meetings they considered most important.
Hans did class preparations and read dissertations on the rocking boat while Tim and I attended non-stop campaign training, policy debates and a few speeches, and fringe panel discussion meetings on every issue under the sun with all sorts of interesting people, from green energy to human rights to relieving debt burden on the young to the future of the Lib Dems in Europe, successfully implemented Lib Dem policies to rescue post offices, tax reform, community politics, you name it.
For me the highlight was hearing Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, who opened her fringe meeting (and the very large room was full to the brim) by acknowledging that the Liberal Democrats have been the guardians of human rights and civil liberties in our political system, that the party is indeed founded on these principles, and challenging us not to lose essential principles under the coalition where compromise is integral. Labour, she said, had comprehensively abandoned the human rights and civil liberties agenda and indeed developed policies counter to it.
An eminent environmentalist, Aubrey Meyer, was equally compelling, and also somewhat depressing in the message that it is already too late for this planet. His description of the development of acidity in our seas struck a chord for us three sailors. In answer to my question, he confirmed that a single wind turbine (or shall we say ‘wind mill’) in every village would be far preferable to off-shore farms, which are very expensive to maintain – though that politically this was probably impossible. Our journey at sea did expose the fact that with off shore wind farms it’s a case ‘out of sight, out of mind’ – no one can see from shore the extent of wind farms being put down in the North Sea. We saw about eight off-shore farms, and counted 150 mills in one farm alone. The diesel filling station for boats on the River Orwell also serves the smaller wind farm maintenance vessels, which spend inordinate sums on fuel to run back and forth.
We quickly cottoned on to the fact that some of the fringe events had free food and there was often a correlation to attendance. A notice of a US Election Special, complete with US Supersized Portions (a promised fulfilled) drew us into a session on polling the Romney-Obama race, and words of wisdom from Democrats Abroad and Republicans Abroad (you can guess who got the applause). For me the sobering message was that the Liberal Democrats form a critical third party challenge to the status quo, something entirely missing in American politics and a big strike against the US system. As a dual citizen, I asked a question about the relevance in the upcoming election of my postal vote, which in the US is called the Absentee Ballot. The answer: VOTE!
Between us, we got to see some of our ‘top people’ in action and got a good sense of them. We were impressed with Vince Cable (informed, informal, conclusions arising from thoughtful consideration), Jo Swinson (young, wears colourful and crazy shoes, impressively informed, very down-to-earth and an outstanding speaker), Danny Alexander (plain and absolutely straightforward, enormously credible), and Graham Watson (leader of the Lib Dem MEPs). Even skeptical Hans was impressed with Nick Clegg who in spite of the You Tube apology hit song was not really apologetic but again, quite plain and straightforward, constantly making the case for cooperation in government, and demonstrating some kind of long-term resilience. Tim also found Tim Farron very good though was clearly influenced by all the ‘I’m for Tim’ badges that lots of people were wearing.
The conference was well-attended but there was also the sense of a comparatively modest-sized association of people all committed to similar broad principles, and a nervousness and fragility about what the future might hold. We were reminded that economic recession creates fertile ground for extremism, and combined with the unpopularity of complicated coalition politics, this presents us with a big challenge. The Members of the European Parliament we heard spoke about the UKIP challenge, as the other ‘third party,’ and the prospect of only one or two Lib Dem MEPs surviving the 2014 election.
There were a couple of references to the very bad press that the Lib Dems keep getting and the role and public service responsibility of the press within our political system. As if to prove the point the BBC Politics Show kept running ridiculous surveys in the main foyer, in which people were asked to put a bright yellow ball in a see-through container to indicate ‘Yes Nick Clegg should continue’ or ‘No we need someone else.’ Tim and I challenged the reporter (at first we had no idea who he was, and demanded to know which company he represented – how disappointing that it was the BBC) for boiling Lib Dem politics down to one contest; the range of issues and the depth of debate on everything we attended was far more interesting that a yellow ball contest. The reporter got very cross and told us he had no time to be harangued by the likes of us.
Rather than continuous speeches (of which there were actually very few) the conference consisted of policy motions that sometimes strongly challenged government direction. This underscored the Lib Dems as a grassroots organization that is democratically run, on a one member, one vote basis – and the Lib Dems are the only national party to operate in this way. Indeed, while of course there were ‘messages’, the conference did not seem to be dominated by propaganda, but was more about party leaders being held to account by the community activists who sit at the core of the Lib Dem movement. What the party leaders emphasized again and again was the challenge of selling the nuanced message of influence in government, as opposed to a more black and white straightforward picture that would accompany single party government.
The most valuable component of the conference was the campaign training. We met a dynamic group of young activists from Saffron Walden and Stansted who do training in Connect, the new software package we are meant to learn in order to do properly targeted campaigning – and indeed targeted campaigning will be the name of the game from now on. Tim has drawn up a comprehensive rebuilding campaign to attract new members and supporters, and then there’s the matter of campaigning for the next two years’ worth of local elections – though the first will support the second.
By the end of Day Five we were conferenced-out, the hurricane weather had at last subsided and it was time to go home. We had a brilliant trip back, got completely addicted to the pace of life at sea, admittedly under a skipper who sailed the boat practically single-handed while Tim and I pulled a few ropes and put on a few fenders when coming into port (often on the wrong side of the boat).
All in all it was a very worthwhile and certainly unforgettable experience.