Conference Rally: Confessional, motivational and defiant

A conference rally without Tim Farron is a bit like strawberries without cream. When he wasn’t there telling his bad football jokes, I wondered if he’d been put on the Naughty Step for his interview earlier. But, no, he hadn’t even arrived in Brighton.

What we did have was a sense of almost cleansing, confessional, cathartic and heartfelt speeches tackling the pain of the last few weeks head on.

Nick Clegg made clear that he wanted to change the culture in the party. What he said is not new for him. He’s always been very pro equality, but this was a new determination to rid the party of outdated attitudes. The amount of muttering from (mostly) men as he spoke confirmed the need for him to do so.

Jo Swinson told her own story in her own words, coming out from behind the lectern and telling us how she had tried to help the women had made the allegations while respecting their desire for confidentiality. She emphatically said that no women should ever have to put up with unwanted sexual advances in order to be successful. She added that if she had heard of further allegations after Danny had spoken to Lord Rennard, she would have insisted more was done.

She ended by saying that we could only build a stronger economy & fairer society if we had more women around the Cabinet table, in the boardroom and the newsroom.

Shirley Williams spoke next, possibly a little off message in a good way. talking about her experience of being disrespected and patronised as woman MP. She said women of her generation had to either stamp on them or put up with it but today’s women won’t but there was still a long way to go.

Warning her words would be controversial, she added that Chris Huhne was an excellent cabinet minister who and an diligent constituency MP. She reflected on the trappings of power that can make some people feel as though they are above the law.

She talked of her concern that NHS regulations may not have been shown to ministers, or Lib Dem ministers and of how she and Judith Jolly had gone to see ministers to get them changed.

She then roll-called great women journalists before lamenting the conduct of today’s media, especially in the US. she told how Tea Party inspired witch hunts had forced some moderate, decent politicians out of office. She talked about how she might not always agree with Nick but praised his grace under media fire.

Next up, Lynne Featherstone, newly returned from the UN, spoke of her pride at introducing equal marriage. Her next aim was to eliminate the brutal practice of female genital mutilation in a decade. She told us that women aged 15-50 were more at risk from violence or sexual abuse than from road accidents or Cancer.

The last programmed speaker was Sarah Yong from Somerset told us about the county election campaign on her patch, how the Tories were cutting services while spending millions of pounds on offices. She showed a picture of the Youth Parliament, equally balanced and diverse sitting in the House of Commons and said that’s what we should be aiming for. She was joined by two young girls who had campaigned for issues locally.

A rally just 8 days after a by-election win would not have been complete without showing off our new MP. Nick Clegg came back to do the honours, thanking the party for smashing all our by-election records in Eastleigh, giving a special mention to Liberal Youth whose Team EastLY effort was so good. He likened us to cockroaches eating cake. He got a huge laugh when he defiantly said:

Grant Shapps, if that’s your real name, the Conservatives may not be able to win by-elections in Government, but the Lib Dems can.

What started with a sombre, confessional tone, acknowledging failings and spelling out what needed to change ended with celebrations. Some people I spoke to felt that the words were too little too late. I said at the beginning of the media firestorm that the party needed to come out of this with a better understanding of gender and power. The words are great. I get the feeling that some are reserving judgement till they see action.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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