Tom Brake writes … Lib Dem Conference is so much more than just political war-gaming

Before departing for Conference in Brighton this year, I happened upon a blog post on Prospect which bemoans the way in which Party Conferences have evolved from being policy-making platforms into gory showcases for Party brands in the mould of late 90’s movie ‘Primary Colours’ staring the fleet-of-foot John Travolta. Instead of serious politics, they’ve become simply a form of political mood music, so the accusation goes.

Sadly it’s all too easy to write off modern politics as less cerebral than it once was. But having authored a detailed policy paper about police reform and debated complex justice issues from child detention and secret hearings to drug use and justice for victims of overseas crime in the last year alone, I think it is lazy to downgrade our annual get-together to nothing more than a policy vacuum filled with ‘aspirational waffle.’

Yes, I have to concede that things are rather more polished these days, at least to untrained eyes. But our Conference has changed with the times in some ways and stayed resolutely unmoveable in others.

The dry sandwiches I remember from my first Party Conference in 1989 when I attended as a Hackney Councillor may have been replaced by falafel and the glamour of a mini chocolate éclair or two; the drinks may come in glasses that speak more of Shoreditch-style than Stourbridge substance; and the revamped bar at the Hilton now looks like it’s been mugged by someone who survives on box-sets of Grand Designs.

But the window-dressing is deceptive, and the truth is that when you scratch below the mood lighting and carb-less treats, the way we do business at Conference hasn’t changed that much –  policy-making is still at the heart of affairs. It runs through the blood of each and every delegate in Brighton.

In part, this is because for our Party, Conference fulfils a very special function which underscores what the Liberal Democrats are all about. Conference is where we make policy. It’s where we as a Party come together to build a policy-platform with which our candidates can go out to the nation. Lib Dem Conference is the perfect antidote for anyone who believes that policy now plays second fiddle to image.

Of course the role the Conference plays means that sometimes we disagree. There are even occasions when I thoroughly oppose what our delegates decide, as with the decision our membership made with regard to the Justice and Security Bill in Brighton this year, but you will find no more vocal proponent of the right to do so. Like all Parties we have our arguments. We fall in and out of love with each other at times, but at our core, there is a belief that we rise or fall as one, based on the decisions we make together.

As the Guardian reminded us as Brighton closed its doors this year: ‘This week has confirmed that the Lib Dems are still the only main party in British politics genuinely comfortable about letting the members debate politics’. That stands in sharp contrast to Prospect’s assertion that ‘party conferences are now almost completely irrelevant to the policy formulation process.’

You only have to look at the strength of debate over housing reform, tax policy and the diversity of fringes on offer from the likes of the Howard League for Penal Reform or Centre Forum to understand that Conference is about so much more than the odd speech or two. It’s a chance for the Party to come together and celebrate our diversity of backgrounds and cornucopia of views.

There is no doubt that Party Conference has changed and evolved over time. But it is some way off being the slick, stage-managed showcases one expects from the American campaign model. We are still some way off a US system described by John Pilger as ‘ritual danse macabre of flags, balloons and bullshit’ and I, for one, am very grateful for that. Give me a windswept Brighton and a gritty policy debate any day.


* Tom Brake was the Liberal Democrat MP for Carshalton and Wallington from 1997 to 2019.

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