Monday, September 24, 2012

Brighton Rock

A party conference is a remarkably artificial affair, even for Old Lags like me. The business of the hall is somewhat tangential to the real business of conference which is to refresh old friendships and get to as many fringe meetings as possible. For the more frivolous, the determination seems to include finding as many free meals and drinks as possible, but to be honest the attraction of acidic white wine- even free acidic white wine- pales. Chateau de Battrieacide creates heartburn and headache in equal measure, so I strictly ration myself.

Brighton as a conference venue is quite attractive these days- more modern hotels, albeit spectacularly overpriced ones, now function within a brief walk of the conference centre than ever before, and Brighton has emerged as a convenient and compact conference venue, with much to attract the average attendee.

That elusive thing "atmosphere" is what long time attendees tend to focus on, and this year I detect two undercurrents. The first is that a large number of the delegates have a cautious sense that the worst for the Liberal Democrats may be over. These views contrast the near-panic in Conservative ranks with the solidity in the- much diminished- Liberal Democrat ranks. More by-election gains are cited as an antidote to the still dire poll ratings. It may even be true.

The second is the air of triumph amongst those who may loosely be described as the Party left wing. Tim Farron is ubiquitous, and is clearly positioning himself in the frankly unlikely event that Nick Clegg chooses to depart. Several policy motions are nods in the direction of the left, and there is much applause to for those who purvey Anti-Conservative rhetoric. To be honest I am more sceptical- the party establishment is clearly more suspicious of the smiling party President, and in the face of much media provocation, Vince Cable remains silent. In any event the party leader- while facing uncomfortable questions- is firmly in place.

Meanwhile the core of party members is surrounded by a vast new halo of lobbyists and security.  Long gone are the days of the informality of the Liberal Assembly. For myself, I think the kind of grown up, genuine debate that was embodied in the Liberal tradition would find a ready market in the wider world - and be far more attractive than the carefully stage managed hall events that we now undergo. 

Anyway, time to explore the conference...    

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