Saturday, 24 September 2011

The one where Nick Robinson was turned away by security: A 2011 Birmingham Lib Dem Conference Review

I've been away for a week in Birmingham at the annual autumn Liberal Democrat party conference. Having not had a foreign holiday this year (for the first time since 2004), this was a welcome opportunity to stretch the legs even if the distance to the middle of the country didn't match that of my furthest trip away to Thailand back in 2008. Unlike last year, I decided to keep my laptop at home this time and to blog about it on my return. With it being my 35th party conference over the past 9 years (if my memory serves me correctly), I have much to be able to compare it too.

A Lib Dem conference perspective from Northern Ireland by Stephen Glenn can be read here and likewise another view from Sheffield boy Anders Hanson can be read here. For a Scotitish flavour, Caron had all angles covered. This meanwhile is my distinctively Welsh flavoured perspective on proceedings.

Another 5 days of amusing anecdotes came to a particularly surreal conclusion before my early departure on Wednesday morning. For personal reasons I changed my plans at the last minute and decided to leave for home early which meant missing Kirsty Williams' speech as Welsh Liberal Democrat leader and that of Nick Clegg who closed the conference. Instead, my last action of the week was a set of Radio Cymru and Radio Wales interviews in the ICC. I arrived a few minutes early at 7.55am, only to be told by the police that the security scanners would not be operational until 8am. This would prove tricky as I was expected on air after 8am and would have to walk right around the back of the ICC to the media entrance to gain entry entry in time. As it so happens, seconds later up came Nick Robinson the BBC's political editor seeking entry for a similar reason. I expected to see the police wave him through due to his 'importance' but I must admit to being rather pleased to see him being given the same treatment that I had just been subjected too. With an audible huff, he briskly made his way around the longer 5 minute alternative route around the building and I duly followed him. We both got to our destinations at 8am but it must be said that he did so quicker than I did - I've been known to walk quickly but Nick Robinson outpaced me at an impressive rate!

On arriving back at my hotel to pack for my departure, I was met at the entrance waiting for his taxi, by the immense presence of our Chief Whip Alistair Carmichael. I've only come to know Alistair well over recent months but in that time I've become a big fan and it was a nice way to end conference to see him greet me as I crossed the road towards him.

These events ended what had been another exhausting conference week.

The Policy
It must be said that the mood was one of a party in robust and quietly determined form. From the sheer bemusement of Liverpool 2010 when all walked around in a state of incredulity that the liberals were in government, here now was a party that was much more at ease and settled with itself and understood its role as a responsible party of Government.

No real dramas, no real nasty surprises, no real rebellions with which the media pack could get their teeth into. No, this was a week when the party exerted its controlled opinions on issues of importance such as the NHS reforms whilst acknowledging that we do so now from a position of strength in government and not a position of forlorn hopelessness on the opposition benches.

Things aren't going to be easy, but governing in the national interest is the right thing to do - the simple and unavoidable message from all at the Birmingham 2011 conference.

The Football
Away from the speeches and policy debates, it was a busy time to catch-up with old friends and to meet new ones. I also took the unique opportunity of a Lib Dem conference in Birmingham to make my first visit to the mecca that is Villa Park for some 7 or 8 years. Ironically, it was against the same Newcastle opposition that I saw at my first ever match at Villa Park with my father back some 16 years ago back in 1995 when Kevin Keegan's men were atop the Premiership table. With added irony, the 1-1 draw scoreline from that match was replicated last Saturday. It could've been better yet it could've been worse so on balance, I'll take a point.

The Fringes
The now traditional Roger Williams MP led RSPCA curry and beer night fringe was again well attended and quite bizzarely, our table which was headed up by both Roger and Mark Williams MP, won the quiz! That was followed by a very enjoyable 'Welsh Night' in which our hosts All Bar One had to put up with what I felt was a rousing rendition of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau by Ollie Dunckley, Chris Took and I - it duly won us a deserved round of applause!

My favourite fringes of the week had to be at the Guardian when an irritable James Landale from the BBC rightly provoked the ire of Paddy Ashdown and Lynne Featherstone who responded with no mercy but with great applause from the assembled throng. Also the Lib Dem History Group's launch of its new history on British liberalism in the company of Shirely Williams and once more, our Paddy.

My Aberystwyth Student Lib Dem Children
It was great to catch up with so many friends from over the years and many of them hailed from earlier times as a student in Aberystwyth University. Indeed this autumn marks the 10th anniversary of the incarnation of the current Liberal Democrat student society in the University as started by Andrew Falconer and Stuart Garlick and which I tentatively got involved in at that time. Over the past decade I have seen students come and students go. Some have moved on to higher things in the party whilst others have remained close friends whilst making a career outside of politics.

I caught up with many of them this past week and helped introduce many from our current intake to the weird but wonderful world of the Liberal Democrat conference. I must admit that as the 'Elder Statesman' of the group, I take a great paternalistic pride at seeing what at once were quiet but keen members grow to become positive, committed and enthusiastic members of the party but more importantly than that, to be good liberals. If my attempt at support and encouragement has helped them in their development as good human beings in any way over the past decade, then I am immensly proud to have played my part.

The Finale - Glee Club
It was particularly pleasing to be able to introduce at least 4 of our students to the almost indescribable event that is Glee Club (although Caron gives a good account of it here). Anyone who knows me within these circles will testify that I am not a Glee Club apologist. I adore it and its crazy, self-depracating ways and I will shout it loud and proud to anyone who will listen.

It really is like Marmite is Glee Club - you'll love it and come back for more each time or you'll never touch it with a 10 foot barge pole for as long as you live. I'm glad to report that my students unsurprisingly fell into the former category with myself. As Caron said in her piece, the comic singing interspersed with patriotic renditions (I led Glee Club in Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau and Cwn Rhondda!) and comedy turns from prominent Members of Parliament makes it an uniquely surreal experience for any first-timer. I also took slightly less clear photos of Paddy Ashdown (it's that man again!) whilst doing his (in) famous joke and also Party President Tim Farron whilst leading his rousing version of the Ting Ting's That's Not My Name which though only in its 3rd year is already becoming a cult classic!

Paddy Ashdown, one more time...
But I was destined to bump into our Paddy just one more time before I left. Whilst waiting for my interview for Radio Cymru on Wednesday morning, Paddy came down beside me to do an interview with Radio Wales. His with Ollie Hides began and Betsan Powys the BBC Wales Political Editor did all she could to stall the Welsh interview with me until the one being broadcast live a foot away from us came to an end. But time run out and we had to begin our Welsh interview despite the live 'interference' from the English interview alongside us! It's the first and probably the last time that I'll find myself going up against Paddy Ashdown!

So, the curtain came down on another conference. It was sad to leave because as I now rarely visit the spring weekend Federal conferences, this is often the only time of the year when I get to catch up with my extended British Liberal Democrat family in full. But at the same time, it is exhausting and I was more than ready to go home knowing that I had yet more anecdotes and stories to tell to the next generation of Liberal Democrat activists.

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