I always wonder about "conference". Sometime speakers address the delegates as this singular creature: "Conference, we must blah blah blah". Talking about "conference" with no article is a sign of having been around for a while- being inside in the in crowd. But conference is a strange animal.
Sometimes, I am sure that the Party leadership must think that, if it is an animal, then it is a rather bad tempered one. In Blackpool, the proposal to inject more commercial disciplines into the post office was embarrassingly rejected by "conference", and this year there was the prospect that Ming Campbell would not be able to carry his tax proposals through the thickets and mires of the conference vote. In fact, from my arrival in Brighton it was fairly clear that the party was in good humour with the leadership, and although some we unhappy about scrapping the 50% tax proposal, it would be passed nonetheless.
Although it remains to be seen what Charles Kennedy will say in a few minutes, I would say that the atmosphere is pretty chirpy. There is none of the expectation of Bournemouth in 2004 nor the rancour of Blackpool in 2005. There is a very sober sense of the new political reality. The Tories are not dead, and this could hurt us. However there is also the sense of a party that is getting its act together. There is a much greater sense of intellectual coherence- and if the party still fails in my view to be coherent or Liberal enough, I sense the possibility of progress.
As "conference" is told to be sensible and serious, I find the mood in the bars is a little subdued, although there seem to be more younger members- many young women- which is nice. Meanwhile the more eccentric dressers seem to be given conference a miss this year. This is the straightest conference- in every sense of the word- that I have ever attended.
It therefore is no surprise that the party is happy to vote through changes on the tax side which are reasonably radical. I would have liked to see us scrap LIT and move towards a Land tax as a far better alternative to the current nonsense of the Council Tax, but you can't have everything.
I have hung around with my Scottish colleagues- always a pleasure to see old friends- although I notice my whisky consumption increases mightily in their company. The atmosphere amongst the Scottish Party is now one of real optimism for what might be possible at Holyrood in the 2008 election. Nicol speaks of being the largest party, and after the stunning success of Dunfermline, Labour must be looking to their laurels.
Perhaps the conference has turned into a pussycat.
Time to listen to Charles.