People who know me may have noticed that by halfway through autumn conferences in the last few years I have become very sullen and withdrawn, wandering around the halls of the conference centre muttering darkly under my breath.
The truth is, in recent years I’ve come to loathe party conferences. They’ve increasingly become worryingly close to the Tory version for my taste, with policy “debates” reduced to Nuremberg-style rallies (the fact that the person speaking at the front usuall has the charisma of a wet fish appears to have escaped people’s notice). The policies themselves have tended to be dire: over-interventionist, full of lazy sloganeering and squarely aimed at the lowest common denominator. By the end of the conference week I had normally lost the will to live.
But not this time. In fact, I really enjoyed myself. This is probably in part due to ego, as I enjoyed the extra attention borne from writing chapters in two pamphlets (Liberalism – something to shout about edited by Graham Watson MEP/Liberator and Community Politics Today/ALDC) that were doing the rounds, writing the Taking Power local party’s guide and speaking in two fringe meetings. But it is also to do with the fact that for the first time in ages I’ve been able to detect tangible evidence of neural activity going on in the upper echelons of the party.
Ed Davey’s plans for revamping our campaigns and communications was better than I was expecting, despite having heard some very good rumours beforehand. The tax paper, while not perfect, has respectable underpinnings and is taking the party – at last – in the right direction in terms of economic policy. Notwithstanding Alex “crass, boorish and more a bruiser than blogger” Wilcock’s mean comments (some of which are very much spot on), as a first attempt at moving away from the party’s usual sloganeering, it isn’t bad. The important thing is to keep padding it out and to keep revisiting it.
In short, the party is moving in the right direction. Still plenty to be irritated about but that’s a far cry from two years ago when I very much thought we were going backwards. Even Ming’s speech outclassed anything that his predeccessor delivered in his 6 years, although he’s still got a long way to go to beat Paddy. Can I suggest borrowing the latter’s trick of using his conference piece as a think piece to challenge the party rather than slavishly following the “Labour – bad, Tories – worse, Lib Dems – yay!” formula that simply flatters the prejudices of its audience?
The only real cloud on the horizon for me was the party’s strategy to involve more women and people from under-represented groups. Apart from Simon’s dreadful diversity motion, which I was the speaker to oppose (although I understand that one of the other speakers got a speech on the basis that they said they would speak against and then didn’t – some very dirty tricks there as it unbalanced the debate), the announcement of a Â£200,000 “leaders fund” was worse than I was expecting.
Let me be clear about something. This Â£200,000 is for supporting candidates who have already been selected. Not a penny of it will go on outreach work to attract new people. Not a penny of it will go on training people interested in becoming candidates. Not a penny of it will go on mentoring, coaching or support. Somehow, individuals at the top of the party have convinced themselves that the main problem the party faces is giving selected candidates in target seats sufficient support. It is the single most arse-backwards policy I have ever come across and the party will – I promise you – pay the price.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that the existence of this fund won’t help to convince people that if they get selected they will get sufficient support, or that that support isn’t needed. But in order for us to truly ensure that our candidates better reflect Britain we have to go out there and find hundreds of new people who up until now have not been putting themselves forward. And that costs money.
So be it. All in all, I’ve come away from the conference feeling enthused and inspired, to the point that in the areas where I’m less happy, I can at least see there is a point in spending time doing something about it.