The vast majority of Lib Dems who attended autumn conference would agree with me in saying that it was a success. The mood surrounding the ICC Birmingham was unmistakably positive. The feared factionalism that had been predicted by some never materialised. But what really makes our conference seem amazing, in retrospect, is just how badly the respective Labour and Conservative gatherings have played out.
Labour conference was up first. As the only major party of opposition this should have been a conference to remember for them. A year of riots, phone hacking and a poor economy gave them more ammunition than most opposition parties get in an entire parliament. And yet Labour delegates slumped around the Liverpool docks as if every single one of them had just been dumped.
True, Ed Miliband’s speech was a train wreck, particularly the opening “I’m not Tony Blair” – muted applause – deer in the headlights bit. And not everything was rosy in 2011 for Labour: the Scottish elections in May were for some a possible foreshadow of electoral embarrassments to come. Nevertheless, a decent lead in the polls and three and a half years to get themselves together should have provided at least some optimism. As it was, not even Polly Toynbee could get excited about it all.
But Labour conference was probably an unmitigated success next to the horror show that was Tory conference in Manchester. Right, let’s start off with the setting: why the hell did the Conservatives think that holding their conference in Manchester was a good idea? The Socialist Republic of Mancunia is possibly the least Tory friendly place in the whole of England. Greater Manchester has four Labour MPs and one Lib Dem; the city’s 96 seat council contains not a single Conservative councillor. So was this like when FIFA held the World Cup in 1994 in the USA, a kind of reaching into new markets sort of thing? All they had to do was send one intern from Millbank up to Dean Street for an evening to see that was never going to work.
The Tories at their autumn conference this year were a lethal combination of unprofessionally useless and unforgivably dull. There were the gaffes, Theresa May’s cat remark being both the most notable and the most hilarious. I actually felt sorry for Andrew Neil having to cover the thing for the Daily Politics. There were times where you could see in his eyes the thought flashing, “I have to fill a whole other hour of television using only these boring sods?”
I know, conferences mean little to anyone outside the Westminster bubble. However, they do tend to act as early warning signs for where the parties are heading to in the next year or two. Perhaps we’re better off than sometimes people give us credit for.