Over at Lib Dem Voice, Stephen Tall asks do you remember your first party conference?
What I remember of the Spring 1996 Nottingham conference was not that positive. Three things stand out: the big debate over higher education in which LDYS submitted an amendment for free education which was thrown out in favour of Don Foster’s proposals for individual learning accounts (a policy that lasted ooh… five minutes I think); talking to a fellow LDYS member outside a meeting in which two rival factions both claiming to be the real Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats had had a slanging match; and attending a fringe meeting in which Richard Denton-White and Ken Livingstone back slapped each other for an hour.
As a result of the latter I fell in with Denton-White’s Chard Group (1992) (which for the uninitiated is a microscopic satellite group aligned with the Lib Dems which promotes closer links with Labour’s left wing, “inspired” by a speech in Chard that Paddy Ashdown made in 1992). Fortunately, I quickly learned the error of my ways and drifted away from them again even quicker than the party buried individual learning accounts.
Still, despite all that negativity – not to mention the first LDYS conference I went to (London, November 1995) which was even more rancorous – I’m still here. In many ways the party is much less split than it was back then. On the other hand, that also implies that the party is much less questioning than it was back then. Back then, community politics still had some philosophical underpinning that people actively debated. For all the talk that now goes on about the Lib Dems’ need for a narrative, we actually had one in the 1997 General Election – we just didn’t call it that (“cleaning up the mess in politics, et al“). The party’s strict targeting strategy was controversial and the failure of people to campaign in their nearest target seat probably cost us votes, but at least there was debate about strategy.
Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be and I’m not claiming that 1996 was a great period in the party’s development, but I do miss the freshness of debate. Whether that freshness was due to the comparative newness of the party or the comparative newness of me, is another matter.