Opinion: I’d rather be boring than bonkers

Monday night’s Channel 4’s coverage of the Liberal Democrat conference ended with Michael Crick interviewing Ann Treneman and Michael White about the general feel amongst Lib Dems.

Among the usual sniping from a reactionary sketch-writer and the doyen of the urban intellectual elite came a lament that the Liberal Democrat conference did not feel like a Liberal Democrat conference. People were too on message, they moaned; there was not enough rebellion; nor enough eccentricity. Michael White in particular bemoaned the absence of beards and sandals. Lib Dem conference, they felt, had become boring.

Too right.

We are not in the 1970s, when you could fit the parliamentary party in a black cab and conference delegates looked like they’d drifted in from a Prog Rock festival. Nor are we so marginal that we need policy motions on goldfish and the potential dangers of asteroid attack.

Over the last 20 years the Liberal Democrats have seriously professionalised as a party. And it shows. As we have acquired suits and ties we have acquired 25 seats. As we have grown in stature our policies have become better formulated, better costed and better presented. As we have become more sensible we have attracted more serious, more professional people who want to make a real difference to the world in which they live.

So I, for one, don’t share this media trio’s nostalgia for days gone by. I’m glad that today, Liberal Democrats are openly debating policy that really matters, in an intelligent and informed manner, and then going out and presenting it to the public in a way that makes us appear competent and confident. I’m glad we’re a more professional party than we’ve ever been before. And I’m glad that that has meant that these days, the parliamentary party would need to be ferried around in a fair sized coach.

And let’s not forget that those self-same journalists who lament the passing of that bygone and bonkers era were at the time using those self-same off-message delegates to seriously undermine our credibility in the eyes of the public.

I’ve never been one of the beard and sandals brigade. Frankly, I don’t lament their passing at all. These days the party of beards and sandals a much tougher, more serious one.

* Tom Papworth is the Director of Policy at Liberal Vision, which exists to promote individual liberty, a free economy and limited government within the Liberal Democrats, among the political and media community and to the wider public.

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  • “As we have acquired suits and ties we have acquired 25 seats. ”

    You acquired those seats because you had centre-left policies and were alternative. Neither of these labels now apply.

  • Using the phrase “intellectual elite” as a pejorative is deeply disturbing. Presumably, Tom Papworth prefers the opinions and support of the randomly selected ignoramuses.

    For once, I almost agree with Simon McGrath (can’t bring myself to do so fully – why is someone in favour of big government also anti-market? It’s perfectly possible for someone to argue that government has a large role in regulating markets to keep them competitive and useful – the opposite of ‘free markets’. Also, just because goverment spending is allocated on the basis of rationality, rather than the blind free market approach, doesn’t mean that the money isn’t allocated on a competitive basis to the service providers. Simply implying that big government = anti-market and thererfore that free market = competitive, efficient, delivers on the basis of real and sustainable need (rather than the wealth accumulation of vested interests with too much power), is rather a primitive outlook in my opinion).

  • “I’ve never been one of the beard and sandals brigade”

    Nor have I. But I think Tom Papworth looks rather stranger than those that he decries. The Liberal Party in the 1970s and 1880s came out with more profound policies than possibly any Party in Britain other than Labour’s nationalisations and Thatcher’s privatisation.

    What IS Liberal Vision for? It appears to be a strange clique with a geeky and most unattractive web-site. Have any parts of it ever won any elections (other than on the back of someone else’s platform?)

  • An insulting & deeply silly piece. You could hve included some actual evidence to support one element of your prejudice, that theres been some actual change in our appearance, photos of the conference hall from 2001 & this year for example. Those of us interested in trivia could count the beards & suits for ourselves.
    I hope the LDV team were too busy to read your article before publishing it.

  • I’ve always worried that we as a party seem to have been unable to look “ordinary”. Most people at a Party Conference are away from their normal work – I do not see it as wrong that they set aside the (conformist – our Constitution warns us against conformity) uniform of suits and ties for men, and “power jackets” for women for the week. I do see that by adopting a dress code of “beards and sandals” (always a caricature, anyway) we could easily transmit an image of “weird” to the general public, which is not usually helpful in getting elected! In the “old days”, of course, Nick Winch was always the classic – dressed almost invariably in short denim shorts!

    But as Liberals and Democrats, Simon is right, ideas and potential policy needs to be the thing!

  • The whole beard and sandals thing is pretty much dead anyway, I doubt you’d get that even in other parties you could easily stereotype with that image, which are much smaller and less organised than we are these days. In fact, I highly doubt you’d see that even at a prog rock festival these days! Though admittedly the analogy was amusing.

    Anyway, I’m not sure that stereotyping or mocking people for their dubious fashion choices is really appropriate in this context (well, partifcularly inappropriate in this context, I don’t think it’d ever be appropriate). The liberals of that age were radical and I think we would do well to regain some of that radical thinking that has been lost.

    Unfortunately, it seems as though we may be going through the process of becoming just another major party, with factions, conformity and a simultaneous loss of innovation and respect for our roots. Just like the Labour party became just another factional, besuited party with stayed ideas when they stopped remembering their roots as such a radical (in the broad sense) party as they were in the early 20th century.

  • paul barker 20th Sep '11 - 1:00pm

    I went away to calm down then read the article again to see if it was as bad as I first thought. On 2nd reading its actually a lot worse. On top of the prejudice based on appearance theres the “jokey” attidude to Mental Illness & a dose of Class Hate as well.

  • Tony Dawson 20th Sep '11 - 1:31pm

    ” I have won two elections.”

    Did you win (ie gain) or did you hang on in a seat previously-won? Not that I’m quoting this as the be-all and end-all. But a number of quite senior and opinionated Lib Dems have never gained anything for the Party. They have inherited much which was built up by the blood, sweat and tears of others.

    My concern is more that an organisation allegedly for Liberals is a wholly-owned subsidiary of another organisation ‘Progressive Vision’ which makes a point that it is ‘non-party-political’. Could someone point me towards who pays or ‘Progressive Vision’?

  • paul barker 20th Sep '11 - 2:28pm

    Jokey attitude to Mental Illness – as in “Bonkers”.
    Class Hate. I could be reading that into your refereces to Suits & Professional.
    I am relieved that you didnt mean any prejudice, perhaps you need to be more careful about the way you write.

    PS Both NASA & ESA have programs in place to assess the threat from “Near-Earth Objects” & to test possible ways to deal with them.

  • “I hope the LDV team were too busy to read your article before publishing it.”

    No, they spend their time removing comments that don’t fit with their deeply prejudiced view of the world.

  • @Tom – I don’t doubt it, but your tone in your original post wasn’t really appropriate to make such a simple point! As I’m sure you’ve gathered from the largely hostile response to it, it does come across a lot more like attacking the Liberals of decades past for their appearance than stating how you are glad that current liberals take more care.

    I think that the talk of “bonkers” and so forth isn’t making fun of the disabled (seems a bit tenuous to me) but I think that it is showing very little respect for previous liberals, which I think is very much not the attitude to take, and although I’m glad that you were intending to make a positive message it does come across as your mocking older liberals for their appearance.

    If you have a positive message to make, then make it sound like a positive message. Your post just seems to be denigrating those who hadn’t polished up their presentation rather than expressing gratitute to those who did. I’m very glad that it apparently just seems that way rather than actually being that way though!

  • Simon McGrath 20th Sep '11 - 5:21pm

    Steve – I want suggesting that someone who is anti market is automatically in favor of a big state. Just that in many people they two go together.
    Actually I think it should be perfectly possible to be in favor of a biig state , but one which uses market mechanisms in many cases to deliver services at least cost (to a defined quality level) thus allowing more money to be spent on things provided by the state

  • Ruth Bright 20th Sep '11 - 9:12pm

    Tom, Yeah right – you don’t catch us with daft flower power policy motions anymore.

    No 1970s rubbish about the healing power of allotments, emotional intelligence, quality of life etc. Oh, er hang on a minute….

  • In the good old days which I remember, the bearded,dufflecoated CNDbadged sanals with socks brigade would never have dreamed that their MPs wouldsign a pre election pledge then sacrifice the integrity of the Party by renaging on it. But they would know that the public will not forget as the opinion polls testify.

  • To equate wearing a suit with professionalism is absolute rubbish and offensive to people like me who rarely wear them. My work requires me to be highly professional but also requires me to wear a uniform and I can think of numerous other similar roles.

    Though if you insist on judging people on appearance, on Tuesday’s Newsnight Lord Oakeshott was interviewed wearing an aubergine polo neck, navy velvet jacket and what appeared to be flared cords. Possibly about as 70s as you can get, yet he was (until recently anyway) a government minister. Maybe you need to reread that bit about conformity on your membership card?

  • Craig Brown 23rd Sep '11 - 9:24am

    I just wanted to add a quick word about the work Lembit did on the Near Earth Object / asteroid issue in parliament that is waved away as a trivail matter with such low probability that we need not concern ourselves with it. I’m on the exec committee of ALDES, the Association of LibDem Engineers and Scientists – my day job is a space mission designer where I have responsibility in my company for future missions related to asteroids and, indeed, potential impact.

    The risk associated with asteroid impact is not calculated as the probability of impact alone but is a combination of probability of impact AND the damage such an impact will do. As rightly stated, certain objects are more than capable of wiping out life and, as a result, the risk of asteroid impact is actually very high. In fact, the probability of impact alone is a lot higher than you might expect – many many orders of magnitude greater than winning the lottery, for example, but many of us are willing to bet a quid that we’ll win it each week…!

    Lembit went a long way to raise awareness of this in parliament and, partly as a result of his campaign, the UK governement set up the Near Earth Object Information Centre (worth a google!). This year, the company I work for is part of a major consortium that has won significant R&D funding from the EU to investigate mitigation measures dealing with an Asteroid which is observed to be on a collision course. My job will be to coordinate the activities performed by NASA and the Russian Space Agency in this task. This is far from a trivial matter and the work done by the Liberal Democrats in this area was somewhat instrumental in raising this issue onto the world stage.

    I appreciate the point you were trying to make in the post when you listed asteroid impact as one of the trivial things debated in previous conferences, however I’m afraid you’ve chosen the wrong example.

  • @Tony Dawson – here is the link to Progressive Vision http://www.progressive-vision.org

    You may also like to look at Liberal Vision

    and, of course, there is also Social Liberal Forum

    Members of the latter two are Lib Dem Members and activists who are not happy with the direction in which our Party is going.

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