What’s your first Conference or campaign memory?

I had meant to write about something else this evening but time has run away with me. Never mind. That’ll keep for tomorrow.

So this is really just a quick post inspired by the fact that my nephew is heading off, all fired up and full of anticipation to his first political conference. Sadly, it’s the SNP one in Perth, but I’m sure he would want me to say that he did join earlier in the Summer, before the referendum and before it became cool to do so.

Even though his views are very different to mine, it’s great to see him get as enthused as I was. I understand that passion, that uniting behind a common cause. I also understand that there isn’t really a cure for this condition that causes you to put yourself through serious pain and hard work at the expense of just about everything else in your life.

The happiness in his eyes as he had his photo taken with Alex Salmond during the referendum campaign or the amazing photo he posted on Facebook the other night of someone taking a photo of Nicola Sturgeon taking a selfie with him reminded me of those early days. In Caithness Bob Maclennan had left Labour to join the SDP and 1983 was his first campaign that I joined as a 15 year old. Nobody really knew how it would go and we all worked so hard. I really did think my heart would burst with happiness and pride that Friday outside the Assembly Rooms in Wick when he emerged the winner.

My first conference came three years later, an SDP conference in Paisley in 1986. I spoke at it in a debate about drugs. The Press and Journal described me as an “all over problem” as I recall. I even got interviewed at the end by STV. Young Social Democrats took part in the comedy review and I remember persuading Bob Maclennan to make a joke at Charles Kennedy’s expense which had the room in hysterics.

So, it got me thinking that it might be fun to share some first memories of our campaigns for the party or our first conferences. Whether it was a daily phone call between candidate and agent from the phone box at the end of the street in the 1964 election (that did happen – hard to imagine that not everyone had their own phone) to pounding the streets of Eastleigh, to hearing David Steel exhort us to “go back to our constituencies and prepare for Government” to the exotic delights of Glasgow’s Lib Dem Disco*.  Tell your story in the comments. Of course, any embarrassing details about any of our parliamentarians which aren’t libellous are more than welcome. Especially bad clothes.

*I beat Tim Farron, you know. But not Alistair Carmichael, because he was always going to play the YMCA card. I’m not bitter, of course.

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

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  • My first election campaign was the 1974 February election. OK, so I was 7 months old and it was because my pram was being used as a poster board, but hey, it counts?

    The first conference I remember was a Scottish Liberal Assembly in St Andrews Town Hall – yes, it was more than big enough then! I must have been about 10 or 11, and spent most of it selling raffle tickets for NE Fife . The highlight of the weekend was plucking up the courage, and managing, to sell some tickets to Malcolm Bruce, not long elected as an MP. Little did I know then….!

  • Gordon Lishman 13th Nov '14 - 10:52pm

    Jo Grimond in Westminster Central Hall in 1964. Oh dear!

  • Hannah Bettsworth 13th Nov '14 - 11:15pm

    First campaign – a council by-election for Kris Chapman who I’d met through the AV referendum and I was helping out as a friend more than as a Lib Dem at that point. I got pretty much every angry nationalist and a man looked at me and told me he “didnae vote fae the devil” but that he did vote for “Alec Salmond.” No comment.

    First conference – Scottish Autumn: Dunfermline 2011. I broke my laptop casing at some point between getting on the train and Dunfermline – have no clue how I did it. There were some protesters outside but I’d managed to get a taxi with an exhibitor from Shelter. I saw on Twitter that afternoon that they were Siod Nan Gaidheal, an extremist nationalist group. I may have walked past them on the other side of the street waving a Saltire and singing God Save the Queen on Sunday evening.

    On a serious note, I proposed policy to oppose SNP student grant cuts for the poorest students, something I’m proud of spearheading and really happy that Liam McArthur is taking up.

    The best thing, though, was I made three of the best friends I have – my liberal family – because we sat together on the train from Dunfermline to Edinburgh. Eilidh Macfarlane, Euan Davidson and Alex White are the best <3

    On the subject of train journeys, I think Caron will remember the time I told Alistair Carmichael I wasn't born for the election he was talking about on the way back from Dundee…

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 13th Nov '14 - 11:51pm

    Actually, Hannah, the look on Alistair’s face was hilarious. That was a fun train journey.

  • Harry Hayfield 14th Nov '14 - 9:20am

    Thanks in part to living in the wilds of Western Wales, the only conferences I have attended are those near to me. So I think that I have only attended are Rhayder (cannot recall the year), Aberystwyth (2007 when Lembit resigned the Welsh leadership and I was discussing the Assembly elections at the time) and this one coming up tomorrow. I expect that the same thing will happen tomorrow as happened at the last ones as someone is bound to say “Ah, hello there, Harry from Ceredigion isn’t it?” and I shall politely nod and say to myself “And you are, sorry?” (as nearly 90% of the time, they know who I am but I haven’t the foggiest who they are!)

  • My first conference was Scarborough 1975. My last? Llandudno 1976.

    I remember Scarborough well. A small group of Young Liberals, Peter Hain, Simon Hebditch and myself included tried to get the assembly to allow the London spokesman for the PLO to speak. Thorpe managed to scotch that , of course.

    Cyril Smith shoved me as we went out and his mother hit me with her handbag. Knowing what I know now…..

  • Mine was early 2012. I’d just joined the Lib Dems and was out campaigning on the doorsteps. I then got verbally abused and physically intimidated by members of the local Labour Party. Welcome to local politics, I thought.

  • Kay Kirkham 14th Nov '14 - 2:32pm

    I attended the very first SDP conference but my first serious memory was of a very wet marquee in Buxton where I was trying to move an amendment to get child care costs tax deductible. I made my speech and then – live on BBC2 – fell down the stairs from the podium and landed in the flower pots at the bottom.

  • Lead up to 1979 election. The candidate for Upminster my dad.

  • Steve Griffiths 14th Nov '14 - 3:37pm

    My first campaign memory is from 1962 and at the age of eight, doing a spot of telling at an Oxford City Council by-election. The polling station was my primary school and the candidate was Ivor Davies a noted Liberal radical of the time when the party had people with radical views on the left. It was post Orpington and he won; at the time he became the first Liberal for many years to be elected to the city council. See ‘Keeper of the Liberal Flame’ page 22 at:


    He returned me the ‘compliment’ when I stood as candidate in my first city council by-election in the late 1970s. He came out and regularly canvassed for me. He was always a major influence on me as a Young Liberal, candidate and subsequently councillor and activist over 35 years. If we had a few more like Ivor in the Lib Dems I would be very tempted to return to party membership and help to kick-start life into my current moribund constituency.

  • Steve Griffiths, excellent biography of Ivor Davies, thank you for providing the link.
    I especially enjoyed seeing his 1938 leaflet, which I would happily campaign now. Abolish unemployment, build more houses, peace. It sounds a damn sight better than Clegg’s few hundred quid off income tax and another Tory coalition.
    I also liked the response to Max Beloff!

    Rejoin the party, Steve. We need people like you to relight the Ivor Davies Liberal Flame.

  • David Crichton 14th Nov '14 - 4:31pm

    Like Gordon Lishman mine was also in 1964. I had just come down from St Andrews where the political doppler shift had the President of the Liberal Club, Alan Stewart, become a Tory candidate… Back in Edinburgh I decided to be really radical and joined the South Edinburgh Liberals to help Ronald Guild. Two weeks later I was on the Executive, a lesson I should have remembered in later years! My late Great-Uncle, Tom Reid, was a mainstay of the West Edinburgh Liberals and I always regretted that he did not live long enough to see them win everything in sight. Incidentally, Gordon still owes me for driving him over to his father’s from Dave Prussman’s house the night before the Gorton by-election and then leaving me to find my own way back… Like John Tilley, I would urge Steve to rejoin – like, I suspect, most of us I have had the odd twinge but have always realised that there really is no alternative.

  • My first campaigning experience was in two consecutive elections for a ward on Sefton MBC in 2007 and 2008 – a by-election held after the conviction of the Labour incumbent for benefit fraud, and the subsequent election in the ward six months after that. In many ways, it was the best introduction to campaigning . This was a very mixed ward socially, so it was a swing ward between Labour and Tories. We had a fantastic, energetic candidate who really cared about his community, especially the more deprived part of the ward which Labour had taken for granted and the Tories just didn’t care about at all. We went from a bad third to a decent second in the by-election, then squeezed the Labour vote the next May and won by less than fifty votes. The ward was in the old Crosby constituency which had been represented by Shirley Williams, and we had a picture of her with the candidate and the PPC on the front of the eve of poll – we had an amazing response to that, more than a quarter of a century since she stopped being the MP! Sadly it is now solidly Labour again – after 2010, national swing took it firmly out of our grasp, which is a crying shame. But it taught it me a lot about what it means to actually campaign for people, rather than just the party.

  • I remember Scarborough 1975, though not my first Conference, for two things: first as a vegetarian finding it almost impossible to find anything to eat (the chip shops wouldn’t serve chips on their own); and second, while trying to find a congenial pub one evening coming across a group of Protestant (from their cries of “Rangers”) Hell’s Angels lobbing bricks through the windows of a Catholic Church. We ran away as fast as possible! My last Conference was one in Brighton and I slept in the back of Craig Lewis’s car on a camp site with toilets adorned with National Front graffiti. There’s a serious point there about the unaffordability of attending Conference now. I also remember the meetings with David Steel that David Grace mentions – in a smoke-filled room above a pub, the public bar of which seemed full of the local fascists. The Young Liberals gave Steel a hard time: perhaps I’m wrong, but the increasing detachment of the Party’s leadership from the members and activists seems to me to date from that time.

  • First political memory: telling in a Herts county council election when I was 16 or 17, for Labour.

    First Liberal campaigning memory: an undergraduate at Cambridge, discovering Cambridge had slums.

    The psychological moment of change: at the end of my first year at Cambridge, on a cycling tour of south and mid Wales, coinciding with the Carmarthen by-election and cycling into a village to find about a dozen locals on one side of the road and Russell Johnstone MP plus another two or three Liberals on the other, thinking of ringing my bell disruptively as I passed between them and deciding not to because the Wilson government needed a boot up the proverbial and the Liberals seemed good people to do it. In fact it was Plaid Cymru who did.

  • Liberal Neil 14th Nov '14 - 11:09pm

    My first campaigning was in the 1987 General Election in Redcar. I’d been canvassed by Cllr Stan Wilson and ended up having a long chat with him and he invited me down to see the team campaigning on Redcar High Street on the Saturday. This turned out to be a very effective recruitment technique as I was out canvassing in Newcomen Ward with Chris Abbott (still councillor there) and Glyn Nightingale (the Alliance Candidate).

    My first conference was the Liberal Assembly later that year in Harrogate. They paid my registration fee and I stayed in my tent on a campsite just outside town. Luckily I found myself camping next to Rowland Morgan (lovely chap, sadly passed away recently) and his family, there in a touring caravan. They gave me a lift in each day. I thoroughly enjoyed the conference, despite having no money and living off fringe meeting food. I met a few people from Leicester where I was about to head off to study, including Arnie Gibbons who I helped elect to Leicester City Council a couple of years later. I also remember being very excited to meet actual MPs, including having a really good chat with Archie Kirkwood after a fringe meeting about AIDS.

  • My first campaigning was at the 1970 General Election. I delivered leaflets for the Labour Party. Unfortunately, I didn’t always read the street numbering right. On one particular occasion, a man came to his door and called out (in a kind of mix of Wessex and South London): “Oi, you’ve delivered ‘ere twice! Isn’t that a bit wasteful? B****y Labour!”

  • Paul In Wokingham 15th Nov '14 - 8:24am

    I joined the Young Liberals at freshers’ fair upon arrival at Leicester University in 1983. The next weekend I was out delivering leaflets in a council by-election in which we were resoundingly beaten.

    During my university years I spent an unconscionable amount of time campaigning in Crown Hills in Leicester (the Focuses are familiar to many as they featured heavily in ALC material) learning directly from Chris Rennard and Jeff Lamb whose house had an open-door policy for Liberal activists.

    First “big event” was having the pleasure to organize a hugely successful talk by David Penhaligon a t the University, and first conference was a fantastic YL conference at Great Malvern in (I think) 1985. I stayed in a dormitory-style youth hostel and loudly walked out of a conference session to join a CND march that just happened to be going past the conference hall on its way to RSRE.

  • Jenny tonge 15th Nov '14 - 9:13am

    I joined the Liberal Party in 1959, formally, but my Dad was a Liberal and brought me up on John Stuart Mill.
    My first conference was my big memory. The Glee Club of course with a new song from Aadrian Slade every year.
    I sang ‘Losing Deposits’ for the first time in my life in Southport, I think in the early 1970s
    Funny how things have turned out!!!
    I want ‘God gave the Land to the People ‘at my funeral though. Any friends left out there, please remember.

  • I started to support the Liberal Party in the late 1960s but did not manage to actually become a member until I joimed as a new student at Kingston Polytechnic in September 1970.
    Before that I had already been on the edge of some sporadic “campaigns” (if you can call them that) against Enoch Powell, against the Vietnam War, against Apartheid and against a local Tory MP in the 1970 general election which coincided with my A-levels.

    We had a parliamentary by-election in Kingston in 1972, there was another in Sutton shortly after, I was very active in both the 1974 General Elections. So by the end of 1974 I had taken part in three parliamentary elections and two parliamentary by-elections within just four years. The Sutton by-election was won Graham Tope and the years 1972-74 were a time of excitement and some success for the party, we made a break through onto Kingston Council for the first time since the borough had been set up in 1965.

    It was not until 1976 that I managed to get to my first Liberal Assembly (we did not call them ‘conference’ in the Liberal Party).
    This was in Llandudno and I was one of three people who shared a two-person tent. This was a bit too “cosy” so I spent as much time as possible on Conference Hotel floors avoiding the tent completely on a number of nights. One night I had a very enjoyable chat into the early hours sitting on the floor of a hotel bar with a bloke from from Cornwall — we were probably the only two sober people in the room. David Penhalligon was one of the most interesting people you could want to meet and the complete opposite of the ’empty suit MPs’ that infest all parties nowadays.

    The year before my first Assembly I had been to a very small conference (I think it was called a ‘Think Weekend’) with a couple or three dozen people at a Cadbury house somewhere in the Midlands. It was organised by Radical Bulletin. I had become a subscriber to Radical Bulletin thanks to Harry Seekings (Gordon Seeking’s cousin).
    I had met Harry whilst working on a food co-operative for pensioners which was run by Richmond Young Liberals. That was an excellent example of community politics campaigning of the time predating Food Banks by forty years.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 15th Nov '14 - 11:39am

    This is one of the loveliest threads we’ve had on here in a very long time. Thanks to everyone who has shared their stories. Steve Griffiths, I’d love you to rejoin, because it’s people like you who have the experience of knowing these good old radicals who can inspire the same spirit int he next generation. Whatever anyone might feel about the realpolitik of the situation in which we find ourselves, we are at our very heart a radical, establishment-busting, vested interests pricking, compassionate, positive force for good. The need for good, strong liberalism in the world and in this country is so clear at the moment. I actually fear not just for the party but for the whole country and our way of life. I just feel the UK is being strangled by poison and prejudice at the moment and we need a strong liberal party with its mojo intact to counteract that malign influence. It needs all of us liberals to unite and do everything we can to get our values put into action. If that means trying to give our own party establishment a good ticking off, fair enough, but the home for radical liberals in this country is this party and we need to be doing this together. So, please come back.

  • Robin McGhee 15th Nov '14 - 11:58am

    Genuinely fascinating thread. Would be interesting to see what people from the other parties say.

    For me it was the big rally in Cambridge market square a couple of weeks before the 2005 general election. I had just joined the party, it was my first event, and I could not have had a better introduction to politics. Hundreds of people standing outside the Guildhall in vile weather with hundreds more inside. Wonderful atmosphere. Being absurdly young I was very excited purely by the prospect of seeing people I’d seen on television, so my main recollection is how exciting it was to see Charles Kennedy up close. Like any politician worth their salt he kept us waiting for ages. Still the best rally of any kind I’ve been to- and of course we went on to win the seat.

  • @ John Tilley

    “David Penhalligon was one of the most interesting people you could want to meet and the complete opposite of the ‘empty suit MPs’ that infest all parties nowadays”.

    David Penhalligon spoke at sixth form conference at my comprehensive school. His Cornish accent, humour and engineering background marked him out from the stuffed suits put up by the Labour and Conservative parties. I joined up the following week and then went off to the Southport Assembly where the Tory mayor [who must also have had a sense of humour] welcomed us as “Jerry [Thorpe] and the Pacemakers”.

  • Steve Griffiths 15th Nov '14 - 1:56pm

    Caron; John; David.

    I am not unmoved by your appeals for me to return to the party. I shall consider the matter over this weekend.

    Ivor Davies, David Penhalligon et al, would I am certain have been (like me) wholly bewildered by the recent direction of the party; realpolitik notwithstanding. To fight all those years and then find that the party is, in many of it’s policies or actions, almost the polar opposite of what you thought it was or believed in.

    If I were to return my local party might find it a ‘bumpy’ ride; as you say Caron, that might mean giving the current party establishment “a good ticking off”, although I might have put it less politely! As I have said, I will give this much consideration.

  • Fiona White 15th Nov '14 - 2:10pm

    In 1991 I was persuaded to stand in the local parish and borough council elections. I had delivered Focus for some time. I was assured that I would not win in a loyal Tory area. I knocked on one door not knowing that the owners were the local Tory chairman and his wife. They gave me the usual earbashing so eventually I politely said that I didn’t think they would be voting for me whereupon wifey shouted again and slammed the door. Problem was the large pane of glass in the door, which cracked magnificently. I tried to hide my smile as I walked back down the path.

    PS We won all 5 borough council seats and 11 out of 12 parish council seats. Those were the days!

  • Helen Tedcastle 15th Nov '14 - 2:42pm

    I983 General Election – meeting David Steel in Shrewsbury on one of his battle bus tops around the country. I was seventeen and determined to get involved. Politics was pretty exciting in those days with the formation of the SDP, the rise of Thatcher and her ideology and the lurch to the hard left of the Labour party. It was a time of ideas and causes.

    I went on to help the Liberal candidate in our sixth form election and joined the party at university.

  • Being given a window poster by a Liberal activist in 1962 and rushing home and putting up in the front bedroom window then being told to take it down because voting was secret by my mother.Well if voting was secret why were people putting up posters I wondered.

  • Matt Severn 15th Nov '14 - 4:33pm

    Getting up at 4:30 in the morning to deliver leaflets in Hull, May 2006. Came across the night before with others from the University of York Lib Dems to help out. I had never been in Hull before or delivered a leaflet and was promptly handed a stack of Good Mornings and told to report back to HQ at 8 o’clock empty handed.

    We won the ward I believe, so worth it. Good times.

  • My first time on the doorstep was in February 1974 in Hendon South. Being a conscientious sixteen year old, I spent an entire evening beforehand ensuring I knew the manifesto (‘Change the Face of Britain ‘, cost 15p) so that I could answer all the tricky policy questions I was sure I would be asked. My first experience of canvassing didn’t work out like that and forty years on I know that to be asked a detailed policy question by a voter is a moment to be enjoyed.

  • Joshua Dixon 15th Nov '14 - 6:34pm

    First campaign memory was delivering leaflets in 2010 in Kettering. I think I came home from sixth form and saw a bundle by the door. Felt weirdly proud to be contributing to a political campaign after years of just pondering over whether getting involved was really for me. My first conference was Newcastle in 2012. I just remember it being surreal and also being very skint as I had lost my railcard and had to buy a replacement. Good fun nonetheless. Oh, except the part where I received some nasty comments from protestors outside. They felt very silly when I explained I actually agreed with what they were shouting about!

  • Just remembered another one – my first federal conference. This was 1994 – the one with the motions to legalise drugs and abolish the monarchy, including Paddy’s huffy departure from the stage. What stands out though was an LDYS / SYLD Q&A session with Paddy. There was some mumbling and muttering, before a voice spoke up with the question “I’ve just come back from a walk along the shore front, and seen many, many homeless youngsters sheltering under the pier. I want to know what YOU’RE going to do about that.” Paddy looked up, and responded “The difficult questions are meant to come from your opponents, not your wife!”

  • Mike Falchikov 16th Nov '14 - 6:25pm

    My first campaign was North Devon, 1959 – a summer pre-election blitz organised by ULS (the Union of Liberal Students
    as it then was) and brilliantly led by Jeremy Thorpe who of course won in the following October general election.
    Lovely part of the world and lovely people, not least Lilian Prowse, Jeremy’s agent. The week culminated in a somewhat drunken party on Braunton Beach. Enough said! Anyone else out there remember it?

  • Callum Leslie 17th Nov '14 - 10:01am

    My first conference I believe was spring 1992, at about 4 months old.

    Other than that – Scottish Autumn conference 2007 which (for some unfathomable reason) was in the Buchanan Galleries in Glasgow which we came in no way close to filling. As a member of SCC now I can’t imagine us ever booking that venue! My first campaign was the council and Scottish election campaign earlier that year with a charismatic young man named Alex Cole-Hamilton, what ever happened to him?

  • Richard Church 17th Nov '14 - 10:35am

    First conference? 1979 I think. Margate. Cyril Smith’s speech was interrupted by the boom of explosives used to demolish Margate pier.
    In the same year I went to my first by-election. Liverpool Edge Hill. I remember the words ‘Alton’ spelt out in the windows of the tower blocks.

  • John Mark Cole 18th Nov '14 - 11:45pm

    Apologies for the lateness, but it’s such a nice thread to have read that I felt I should add to it.

    My first political memory is as a 9 year old eagerly following my parents to the polling booth in the 1992 General Election in Pembrokeshire. I recall feeling rather annoyed that I couldn’t vote myself!!

    I joined the party on arriving in Aberystwyth University in 2000. I did nothing for a year as a member (save delivering one round of leaflets in the 2001 GE). My first campaign was for the Aberystwyth East Ward (Bronglais Ward) Town Council by-election in early 2002. It was a double vacancy in a historically strong Plaid Cymru ward. We had good candidates, ran a good campaign and I felt on the eve of poll, could possibly snatch one of the two seats. How naive I was! We were comfortably beaten and were even split by the Tories!! It was also my first ever count (talk about exciting for this statistical anorak!) and in the post-count dismay of it all, we all went, along with then Mayor of Aberystwyth (and 2014 Welsh European No.1 Candidate) Alec Dauncey to Pier Pressure where Alec failed to convince female students dancing away on the dancefloor there that he was the actual Mayor! Made up for a disappointing result!

    My first conference was in Manchester in Spring ’02. I was one of only 2 students attending along with Alec Dauncey and our then PPC Mark Williams. It was overwhelming and just being in the same room as Charles Kennedy I remember was fantastic!

    My first proper conference of note for me was later that spring, the Welsh Liberal Democrat conference in Llandudno. Smaller and easier to get my head around as a still new and green member, I recall not attending the main dinner what with being a poor student so the 4 of us students attending unwittingly gatecrashed a wedding reception in the conference hotel.

    As Anders similarly mentioned earlier in this thread (and who played his own significant role in Aberystwyth in 2003), I can’t believe that this shy and reserved 18 year old student who went to Aberystwyth, would become an active politico and over 10 years later could call on friends from across the country because of that mutual, liberal link.

    Little could I have realised it at the time, but joining the party in 2000 was one of the best decisions I ever made.

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