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Monday, 16 September 2013

Impressions of my first federal conference

Adrian (far right) with Bob Maclennan and Willie Rennie
By Adrian Page
I have been a member of the Liberal Democrats for only a few months.
As a new member I was keen to attend federal conference, although I have to also admit my brother (Andrew) may have influenced that decision to some degree. Unfortunately I was only able to get to Glasgow for the weekend but it was an incredibly eye-opening experience.
The first thing to note is that I was surprised at how positive the mood was. That doesn’t mean that the party at the moment isn’t openly debating what the best way forward might be (it quite obviously is) but the people I met were positive in their outlook, even if they were less than optimistic about how we’ll perform in forthcoming elections. We’re certainly not, as you would imagine from reading the newspapers, a party suffering from crippling depression. The Lib Dems might not all be comfortable with themselves but I didn’t see anyone willing to throw in the towel just yet.
I was also struck by how many young people were at conference. This is excellent. There seemed to be a lot of LGBT people in the Lib Dems too. However, more negatively, I also noticed that there did not appear to be enough people from ethnic minority or even working class backgrounds. I was quite concerned by this, being from a less than advantaged background myself. We need a party that reflects our society and if conference was anything to go by there's a bit of a way to go. I went to fringe meetings where almost everyone present was male. Not at all good.
That said, my observations are mainly positive. I worked at Labour conference last year and was stunned by the difference. The most obvious thing is how more democratic our conference is – you know, it can actually honestly be called a conference rather than a political show. I was also able to talk to Willie Rennie, Shirley Williams, Alan Reid, Bob Maclennan, Tony Greaves and several other parliamentarians. It’s great we have a party where the Secretary of State for Scotland allows you the opportunity to chat with him afterwards, or where the chief whip comes into an SLF fringe meeting to engage openly with members.
What other party would do this?
I liked Tim Farron’s speech on Saturday. I knew a lot about Tim but I’ve never heard him speak before. He was very impressive. He seems to say the kind of things we want to hear, which is definitely good in one way. I was even more impressed with Ed Davey though, who seems both principled and practical. He’s clearly had to adjust his thinking on nuclear energy in line with scientific evidence. He’s also a very strong public speaker – it’s easy to respect him even when disagreeing with him. He seems a future leader in my book.
Willie Rennie also seems a good guy - another man you don't have to agree with to like. He's got a job on his hands to turn the Scottish Lib Dems around but he appears up for the challenge.
The rally was also interesting, not least to learn about MPs’ former employments. I didn’t know that Stephen Gilbert had such an interesting CV, or that Paddy Ashdown joined the Liberal Party from the dole queue. Of the speakers at the rally, Kirsty Williams and Paddy were particularly strong. I didn’t find Nick Clegg very inspiring – he said the kind of things that he always says: he’s sensible enough but he didn’t enthuse me.
The debate was generally informed and tolerant, which is a first time attendee I wasn’t sure would be the case. Admittedly some debates were more interesting and intense than others. I also took some time to talk to some people protesting outside against the bedroom tax, they seemed pretty reasonable to me and I think from what I saw most Lib Dems share their views. It is perhaps disappointing in one sense that the Trotskyists weren't out in force - I wouldn't have minded sharing my views with them.
It was also great it was in Scotland. I heard that it was the first Lib Dem conference in Scotland since 1995 and that the Conservatives have never had a conference here. Never. Unbelievable. The SECC is easy to get lost in and the Scottish weather was typically unpredictable but apart from that I don’t see why there shouldn’t be more federal conferences in Scotland.
Will I be going again? Most definitely. I’m already looking forward to York next year.

Adrian Page is my brother and a new member of the Liberal Democrats.

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