Liberal Democrat Party Conference 2011
Canvas is covering the Party Conference Season Autumn 2011.
At Lib Dem conference the focus is on demonstrating what has been achieved in coalition, as the party is often stifled by being the smaller partner. This is generally done very effectively, and the party has a number of achievements it should be proud of. What were also gone over again were the reasons for going into coalition. These have been put to the party repeatedly before and I can only assume that anyone who is still a committed-enough member to attend conference agrees with them. A popular theme at conference is Labour bashing. The party is in a difficult position in this respect. Traditionally, being a kind of rogue outsider party, it was in a position to criticize both main parties. However, now Lib Dems are in government, criticism of the Conservatives is kept to a minimum and most negativity is aimed at the Labour party. Blaming the previous administration is the oldest trick in politics, and for all it may be true that Labour left the economy in a terrible state, one does get tired of hearing about it repeatedly for a year and a half, much like when Gordon Brown, questioned on the economy, would remind us that it was a global downturn. However, politicians have a point to sell, and if you don’t like repetitive bias, a party conference is probably the wrong place to be.
Sarah Teather’s rally speech
Sarah Teather, for those of you who don’t know, performed what has become a rather infamous speech at conference opening rally, a small segment of which can be found here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gk2FpJyHMHw. While this was pretty much the tone of the rally, Teather stood out for a stand up routine a trainee holiday camp entertainer would be ashamed of. And by the way, that’s not laughter you can hear in the video, but the sound of several thousand people willing her to stop. It’s a shame the bad comedy is what’s remembered from the rally, because there were actually some very interesting nuggets of information in between gags and one-liners about George Osborne (get it?). Did you know, for example, that business secretary Vince Cable removed the export license of chemicals to be used in executions, including to the USA? Good stuff.
Diversity in the party
A big issue for modern Lib Dems is diversity in the party. As a whole it is diverse, with members of all races, those with disabilities and LGBT members. However, this isn’t reflected in Parliament. The Parliamentary party has been described as “too male and too pale”. Whether or not to go down the so-called “positive discrimination” route or just keep our collective fingers crossed and hope that the problem solves itself is the subject of much debate.
On the subject of diversity something should be said about the speech of equalities minister Lynne Featherstone. Featherstone is not blessed with the voice of a great orator, but she knows how to give a positive, uplifting and entertaining speech. It was excellent to be there when she announced a review into how to implement equal marriage laws. From her speech you can tell that Featherstone is not just another minister managing a dull portfolio in the aim of getting ahead in government; she cares passionately about equalities, speaking out against homophobia in the EU and oppression in Saudi Arabia, and the encouraging signs of feminism in the Arab Spring countries.
The most popular fringe event was probably the one on phone hacking, which was one of the few fringe meetings to have a sizeable queue beforehand. Obviously people are very interested in phone hacking, and it was nothing to do with the presence of Hugh Grant. The shameless celebrity stalking of some in the audience was summed up by the gentleman next to me who leaned so far forward to catch a glimpse of Grant talking that he almost fell off his chair, and then once he stopped talking, the man fell asleep for the rest of the debate. In spite of all that, it was actually a very interesting look at press censorship, and most importantly I got to see a famous movie star.
Even more popular than Hugh Grant, however, is the Lib Dem’s own home-grown celebrity: party president Tim Farron. The purpose of a party president is to provide a link between party and leadership, and he does this excellently. He effortlessly encapsulates what most members are thinking and says it in a way the government leadership simply can’t. Naturally funny, he uses humour in a way Sarah Teather can only dream of, and generally gives a fantastic speech. He’s as anti-Tory as anyone, and that’s refreshing to hear for most of the party. He is also very good at providing hope to despondent members, pointing out how the Lib Dems have started winning by-elections again, membership and donations are both up and that real progress has been made on issues such as Lords reform.
On balance I think this was a very successful conference for the party. Commentators are saying that there was a genuine feeling of it being the start of a recovery, a view I agree with, and if the purpose was to make the party look independent from their senior coalition partners they certainly succeeded. It also showed that the party isn’t going anywhere in the near future and we haven’t lost our radical, outsider’s edge. All-in-all what you get a sense of at conference is that, in spite of what people claim about the Lib Dems being Tories in yellow ties, it’s actually the same party it always was. It’s a union of people committed to making politics, and society, fairer, and whether or not the leadership have been doing the right thing over the last year and a half, the membership remains a college of diversity and left-wing views, and an example of politics at its best.
Written by Alex Chafey, member of Sheffield University Liberal Youth.
Edited by Ben Mackay.