Opinion: Reflections of a first timer at Conference

What a first conference! From Friday evening through to Sunday afternoon it did not stop. Sleep seemed to be one luxury too many.

The organisation was far better than I expected. Every event started on time and there were stewards everywhere to help direct you and answer your questions. It was very smooth and professional throughout and everyone I met seemed friendly.

Friday was International Women’s Day and the first event I attended was the Conference rally. Nick Clegg came on and delivered a very good speech addressing the problems of recent weeks. The following speakers (Shirley Williams, Jo Swinson, Lynne Featherstone and Sarah Young) all delivered excellent talks with Lynne producing a very strong case for continued investment in international aid at a time when there are strident calls for its reduction. By the end of the rally I was fired up and really glad to be a Liberal Democrat.

After a quick dash around the exhibition, it was time to go to the First Timers meeting where we got to schmooze with the leadership. Tim Farron and Nick Clegg welcomed us and told us how unique the Liberal Democrats were in our Federal structure. They then proceeded to chat with us individually and they both came across as sincere and nice people. All this made me a bit late for the Social Media event organised by Tom Brake and I missed Paddy Ashdown. The panellists introduced some really thought provoking ideas and the way that Obama communicated with hard to reach voters using social media definitely has lessons for us.

Saturday was a learning day. Training courses ran all day and the only problem I had was choosing which to attend. Those that I attended were of a very high standard and were delivered by experts. I did play truant to see the Nick Clegg Q&A in the main hall – I wish I had not. It started well with some various innocuous questions expertly handled by Nick. When the questions moved on to secret courts, it ran into trouble. Nick came over as quite out of touch and did not address the concerns of the questioners.

I will not attempt to describe the Glee Club except to say that a good and noisy time was had by all and the Liberal Democrats certainly know how to party.

It was an early start on Sunday to get to the conference hall for the emergency debate on secret courts. Jo Shaw opened the proceedings with a powerful and heartfelt speech that culminated in her resignation from the party. She got an ovation, but I was shell shocked. There were some uninspiring speeches against the motion but the passion and eloquence of speeches in support easily won the day. When the vote came, there were only around ten votes against the motion and it was carried overwhelmingly. But Jo had resigned.

The stage was set for Nick Clegg to close the conference. I expected him to address the concerns raised by the secret courts issue but he delivered a competent speech calling on us to pass on the new message. I joined in the standing ovation but my heart was not in it.

That was my first conference and it was a fantastic experience. I left somewhat confused as I had joined the Liberal Democrats because they supported civil rights. What now?

* Anthony Hawkes worked mainly in the oil industry around the world. Since retirement he has become a Human Rights Activist and joined the LibDems to start fixing the world. He blogs at Crustry Old Codger.

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9 Comments

  • Tracy Connell 13th Mar '13 - 2:44pm

    On Nick Clegg at conference – as you say it all went wrong when there was a question asked about secret courts. This was very controversial and Nick did not answer it to everyone’s satisfaction. However, He did start to sway me on the issue. I have to admit to not having read the bill and until now just gone along with what I’ve been told. I do intend to read it and make up my own mind.

    On the speeches front – I think Paddy Ashdown wins the prize for best speech. he got me all fired up to go out there are tackle the world. Whilst I liked Nick’s lines on Conservatives and shopping trolleys and about getting our message out there I think he lacked that fire in his belly that he normally has. I did wonder if he’d say something on secret courts, but I think perhaps he needs more time to consider the issue and wouldn’t want to say anything rash.

    The conference itself was well organised and a good selection of events.

    I hated the venue however – using lots of little rooms all over the hotel. Felt a bit closed in and like a rabbit warren. Personally, I hope it is a long long long time before conference returns to Brighton. It’s a long trek for me and I don’t particularly like the place. Somewhere more central for people would be better.

  • paul barker 13th Mar '13 - 3:22pm

    Just a factual point , its rare for the media to show any interest in anyones spring conferences, thats partly the point of having them.

  • Geoffrey Payne 14th Mar '13 - 12:31pm

    I always enjoy conference although I was also shocked by Jo’s resignation. The best part of conference is the fringe meetings which were excellent. I was surprised how anodyne the agenda was, some of the motions were not worth the effort and I did not get a sense that the party leadership know what to do to improve the standing of the party.
    But at least the fringe meetings were good…

  • Suzanne Fletcher 14th Mar '13 - 4:27pm

    Hi Anthony, interested to hear your comments. it is 29 years since my first conference, so important to pick up views of those just starting. You have found the crucial thing – trying to be in several places at once! very frustrating indeed to have to miss so much.
    I understand you would have liked to come to Liberal Democrats for Seekers of Sanctuary, as would others, but eating, sleeping and other events do have to be fitted in ! you can find out a bit on http://ld4sos.org.uk and we will be updating now we are back from conference and wrtiting something about the fringe.
    in the meantime don’t forget some of the moments, ideas and inspiration of conference.
    PS I was the one singing “Onn Ilkley Moor Bah’t At” out of tune at glee club :-)

  • Why join in a standing ovation if your heat is not in it … it means that it is not genuine. I have gone to most conferences and only risen once for Clegg.

  • Jim Forrest 16th Mar '13 - 6:12pm

    Glad you enjoyed the conference Anthony. I’m choked that diary incompetence kept me away, particularly inview of the vote on secret courts. I thought we’d laid that one to rest in September, and it’salarming that the parliamentary party is so far out of touch with its grassroots. I’ve been happy to be a potholes and pavements politician for 50 years, but the spur to joining this party was and remains the desire to put freedom and justice at the heart of politics.

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