Opinion: Conference showed Liberal Democrat heart, soul and backbone

I joined the Liberal Democrats in 2009 in the fug of the expenses and media scandals. The media wasn’t giving me a window, just leading me into a maze of distorted mirrors. With a slap to the forehead, it finally dawned on me that democracy is not something we wait to have thrust upon us at an election every 4-5 years, but something which we do. If I wanted to find out what was going on, I would have to go and look for myself. And if I wanted to change any of it, I would have to put my shoulder to the wheel, not just shout at other people.

A couple of conversations with Steve Webb brought me to Autumn Conference that year and as he predicted, I liked it. In fact, I loved it. I loved how interested and interesting members were, I loved the fringes, the debates and the sheer friendliness of the place. I loved that there was no hierarchy or snobbery. I talked to Simon Hughes, Danny Alexander and “call-me-Paddy” and they were as welcoming to me as everybody else.  Most of all, not once did I get a sense of spin, or leadership manipulation.

But I was always wary of declaring outright support of Nick. I liked his frank Q&A sessions and his relationship with the members but I’d been bitten before by Tony Blair over Iraq. Would Nick Clegg let us down in the same way? At Autumn Conference 2010 he buoyed my hopes when he said “It’s eyes on the horizon, not on the headlines.”  How long, I wondered, would he be able to stick to that?

Now my 8th Conference has confirmed three things to me.

First, our team has backbone to be proud of. They may be being punched in office but they are not being buffeted off course. Yes, things are hard and they’re learning all the time, but they are showing Olympian scale grit.  Perhaps it’s no accident that military Paddy took to Nick in the first place.

Secondly, Nick’s leadership continues to engender the culture of openness, debate and dissension that I love. Even in tough times I don’t get any sense of pressure to shut up and conform or to toe a line for the press. Eyes are still on horizons not headlines.

Finally, the press still do not get us. They don’t get one of the profound differences between us and the other parties: we the members make policy and therefore elect the leader we believe is most capable of delivering them. If we were to elect another leader tomorrow, it wouldn’t change the policies we wanted delivering.  Contrast this with David Cameron falling off his green agenda.

So that’s why we’re all so irritatingly cheerful at Conference: we share the responsibility so we don’t have to stand by helplessly. We plot and plan to play our part. The Party belongs to all its members.  One day the press and public will get that, just like Nick already does.

* Karen Wilkinson was Parliamentary Candidate for Kingwood in June 2017

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  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd Oct '12 - 12:20pm

    Secondly, Nick’s leadership continues to engender the culture of openness, debate and dissension that I love.

    I wish it did. I’m afraid I find the way he dismisses those who disagree with his strategy, and chooses his advisors from a narrow group of people who favour a particular political direction rather than in a way that represents all streams in the party suggests to me the exact opposite.

  • Richard Dean 3rd Oct '12 - 12:49pm

    So what we now need is muscle! And maybe a stomach to keep the muscle supplied with energy, and bowels to get rid of the waste products, and ….. 🙂

    My impression is like Dave Page’s. A two-party fight seems to fit the press’s perception of their need for simple stories to attract viewers. I was astonished by the difference between the conference on one BBC channel and the reporting of it on another BBC channel.

  • David Allen 3rd Oct '12 - 1:12pm

    “that’s why we’re all so irritatingly cheerful at Conference”

    John Cleese on his crucifix, singing away about the bright side of life, comes to mind…

  • So what we now need is muscle! And maybe a stomach to keep the muscle supplied with energy, and bowels to get rid of the waste products, and …..

    Thank you, Richard, for the perfect image to bring my pleasant lunchtime reading to a close ;P

    Great article!

  • Conference is a great opportunity to meet and debate issues with other people who share our values.

    Its important during coalitions, and quite refreshing , when the difference between us and other parties can seem a little blurred.

    The debates got me thinking about issues in more depth and to see other’s viewpoints – especially when you get to vote on them and decide party policy.

  • Richard Dean 3rd Oct '12 - 3:53pm

    Reality, Catherine! It’s bread and buttee. And even jam! It’s natural and nice, but possibly fattening. No need for rose-tints at all! 🙂

  • Surely not jam, Richard – at least, not today 🙂

  • Martin Pierce 4th Oct '12 - 8:01am

    I sort of admire this kind of wilful optimism in the face of reality. I think you need to experience some more leaders though Karen before making a judgement on what the current one is good at vis a vis the party

  • David Allen – I think you’ll find it was Eric Idle singing ALOTBSOL 🙂

    Which is your favourite fictional character: Eyeore or Private Fraser? 😉

  • What Dave Page said.

  • David Allen 4th Oct '12 - 5:48pm


    I’ll plump for Cassandra!

  • Karen Wilkinson 4th Oct '12 - 11:28pm

    Thanks for reading & commenting, everyone. Was very aware may well be taken for naive/inexperienced when I submitted it, but one thing the LibDems have given me over the past few years is confidence that my POV is just as valid as anyone else’s – and I can’t tell you how liberating that is! 🙂 Of course every leader (everybody?) chooses who to listen to but I really don’t get any sense of debate being stifled. Beside, after working in financial services and the public sector, believe me I’ve done cynicism and it was just so boring. Perhaps the best way to think about this is that if I’ve found such immense pleasure in my party membership, how many others who are as disillusioned by politics as I had been may find the same? Because imho that’s where we need to be looking to find the muscle.

  • Matthew Huntbach 6th Oct '12 - 12:34am

    Karen Wilkinson

    Beside, after working in financial services and the public sector, believe me I’ve done cynicism and it was just so boring.

    I’m not cynical, I just think our party leadership is making a lot of mistakes, and I wish we were in a party that could talk openly about that, rather than one where you feel forced to pretend the leadership is 100% wonderful, is the best ever and could never do wrong. Fewer mistakes would e made if we really could feel free to be open with our criticism, and if we had a leader who actually DID listen to that criticism and was prepared to act on it if the party wanted.

    Sorry Karen, but if you look at politics or the business world, leaders who refuse to change, leaders who only listen to those who say what they want to hear, leaders who choose as their advisers only those who agree with them, tend in the end to be a disaster for whatever it is they lead. I very much regret that the Liberal Democrats ARE led by such a person right now. To me a truly liberal democratic party would be one where the leader supposes his or her position to be a servant to those he or she leads. We don’t have that, do we? We have instead one who pours insult on those who disagree with his direction, and who employed as his Dircetor of Strategy someone whose view is if you don’t agree with how the leader has pulled the party away form what it used to be, you should get out.

  • Matthew Huntbach 6th Oct '12 - 1:15am

    Now, let me give an actual example. On the first day of conference the Independent newspaper published an interview with Nick Clegg in which Clegg accused anyone who was unhappy with his leadership as “losing their nerves”.

    Now that is just appalling arrogance. Someone who has “lost their nerves” is some who has shown cowardice, that is the meaning of the phrase “to lose one’s nerves”. So Clegg here is in effect saying he is so right, he is so beyond criticism, it is so impossible that he could ever make a mistake, that the only reason anyone would be unhappy with him as the leader is that they are cowards who are too scared to accept his infallible leadership.If Clegg had the capacity to believe he might at times get things wrong, then he would be able to treat those who disagree with him with courtesy, to accept they have a valid viewpoint, not to dismiss them as people whose disagreement with him can only be due to cowardice. Sometimes people leading things do go wrong, do take what they are leading it disaster, and what is needed is someone who is BRAVE enough to say “stop – we are going the wrong way”.

    Not only was Clegg being arrogant here, he was using a piece of deceitful trickery. He was deliberately conflating two separate things – acceptance of the continuing existence of the coalition and acceptance of the continuing existence of him as leader of the party. It is perfectly possible to hold to the position one feels the coalition should carry on for now, and yet also feel Mr Clegg is not the right person to be continuing leading the Liberal Democrats in it. By shifting what he is saying so at one point it means one of these and at another point it means the other, he is trying to trick people into thinking that you cannot support one without the other, or to make a false claim on the basis of support for one that it is the same as support for the other.

    I don’t think what Clegg said here was to “engender the culture of openness, debate and dissension”. It seemed to me he was using language designed to shut down openness, debate and dissension. I hate this culture of leader-worship, where if the leader says something that is white is black then it is black. I’ve given this one example, but there ‘s so much else written by Clegg and his advisors (such as the Richard Reeves’ “get out of the party if you don’t agree with your leader” article in the New Statesman which it seems to me are very much the opposite of engendering the culture of openness, debate and dissension.

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