Opinion: Theresa May’s cat – why we should be proud of our conference

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.

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11 Comments

  • Maria Pretzler 8th Oct '11 - 3:46pm

    One interesting aspect of the media commentary about those conferences was that after the Labour conference the journalists started asking: ‘what’s the point for delegates coming to conference if there isn’t any proper decision making?’, and after the Tory conference those voices got a lot louder, with added disquiet about the large number of lobbyists compared to the number of delegates. None of these commentators seem to have had the wisdom to look back at our conference to point out that we did not only have fewer lobbyists in relation to actual party members (though I am sure that’s not out of choice, given the money that can be made that way) but also a lot more decision making in the form of proper policy debates with – amazing isn’t it? – voting at the end!

    Even though few explicitly pointed out the difference, I still wonder whether some people are suddenly reminded of the fact that conferences can be used for policy making – and that once other parties’ conferences served this purpose as well – not least because so many of them who didn’t go to LibDem conference before now find they have to. Those policy debates sure don’t make for great TV clips or for a manicured stage-managed party image, and so they are definitely a better representation of a proper political culture than what you see at the other two conferences. The Tory conference in particular got a bad press over this, and if you look at the arguments, in essence they were mostly criticised for not putting on a bigger version of a LibDem conference.

  • Matthew Huntbach 8th Oct '11 - 11:08pm

    I agree with Maria. All the political parties have striven to become more “professional”, arguing this will attract votes, yet the result has been that people feel more dissassociated from politics than ever. The comments that are coming out after all the party conferences is that they give the impression that those involved with political parties live in their own world, remote from the needs and fears of ordinary people. This IS what you will get if you turn party conferences, as seems to be the case, into conventions of salespeople. The more we try to cover up the cracks, hide real debate and dissent, put on cheery faces and a spectacle, under the supposition this is what impresses the voters, the more they think politics is something remote from them, that politicians are just not ordinary human beings but instead something else, something deeply unpleasant.

    I really do fear what this will lead to – well, the riots were one thing. What is very obvious is that almost no-one, particularly amongst the young, thinks of politics as the way to make society better and fairer. Yet if you ask them “if not politics, then what?”, they have no answer. The few that DO have an alternative answer scare me the most, they are the fanatics of various forms – extreme Islamists, Ayn Rand types, neo-Nazis.

  • jenny barnes 9th Oct '11 - 9:44am

    I’ve watched the John Harris guardian films about the conferences, and watched what happened at Labour and Tory conferences, as well as attending ours. I went with my partner, we’re both activists …it cost us close on £1,000 to attend, travelling by train and staying in a fairly ordinary hotel. We could have had a weeks holiday in the mediterranean for that.
    Our conference was a lot better than the other 2; I did feel that our participation in policy agendas was having some kind of influence on what happens in government. BUT – I want to talk about politics. In particular I want to talk about how we can organise the economy so that it serves people, rather than people serving it. There is no discussion in any of the 3 parties about any alternative to the neo-liberal capitalist policies that we have followed for the last 35 years; that relied on increasing personal and state debt to continue providing demand; and which have now come to the end of that road. 2008 was the end of personal debt increase, and we’re about to see what happens at the end of state debt increase. I doubt it will be pretty.
    Yes, there were some very worthy policy motions – my partner calls them “Applehoods and Motherpie” . For examply who could possibly be in favour of violence against women?
    I want a conference that comes up with some alternatives to business as usual with austerity, and hope for the best. Call it Plan B if you like.

  • Nick Tyrone 9th Oct '11 - 1:15pm

    Picking up on David’s points, my understanding is that the speeches aren’t really “vetted” as such; more accurately, the conference speeches of cabinet members either side of the Coalition are viewed by members of the other camp with a view to only picking up on things which relate specifically to government policy. To take a fictional example, if Theresa May had something in her speech about how the Home Office was going to expatriate thousands of Poles thereby breaking EU law, the Lib Dems would almost certain pipe up with a query. However, in terms of things which don’t actually relate to Coalition policy, nothing would likely be brought up.

    Also, the Lib Dems don’t have any sort of “veto” power over what goes into Conservative conference speeches or vice versa; the chance to view each other’s speeches only provides the opportunity for discussion.

  • David Allen 9th Oct '11 - 1:38pm

    So OK, just for once we don’t look like the complete laughing stock of British politics, because this time around, the other guys have performed at least as badly as we have. Andrew Rawnsley, as usual, provides an objective commentary. He calls all three parties “Lilliputian”, which means that the other two have dropped down to our level. Er…Result?

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/oct/09/andrew-rawnsley-party-conferences-unimpressive

    Well, OK, two cheers then. But Rawnsley also perceptively highlights one rather crucial line from Clegg’s speech:

    ” “Never, ever, trust Labour with our economy again,” declared the Lib Dem leader. Never and ever are two very final and rash words to use in politics. With that so starkly on the record, it is extremely hard to see how the Lib Dems could justify a coalition with Labour in the future, certainly not if Nick Clegg is still Lib Dem leader.”

    So, if we want our party to maintain its tradition of “equidistance” and independence, if we do not want to proceed as a wholly owned subsidiary of the greater Conservative Party group, then we have to dump a disastrous leader who has led us in the wrong direction, don’t we?

  • Christine Headley 9th Oct '11 - 3:13pm

    @David Allen

    Rawnsley is quoted as saying, ” “Never, ever, trust Labour with our economy again,” declared the Lib Dem leader. Never and ever are two very final and rash words to use in politics. With that so starkly on the record, it is extremely hard to see how the Lib Dems could justify a coalition with Labour in the future, certainly not if Nick Clegg is still Lib Dem leader.”

    Easy. If we are in coalition with them, the electorate hasn’t trusted them enough to give them a majority in the Commons. QED.

  • Andrew Suffield 9th Oct '11 - 11:32pm

    it cost us close on £1,000 to attend, travelling by train and staying in a fairly ordinary hotel

    And most of that was your hotel bill, yes? That’s fairly typical for a hotel in a major UK city. This is mostly a symptom of the high cost of living and shortage of accommodation, and not really related to the conference.

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