Month: September 2011

Lib Dem Conference Review 2011

I can’t believe I’ve been going to Liberal Democrat Federal Conference for 15 years now, and although I’ve missed a few Spring conferences I’ve been to every single Autumn conference since that first one in Brighton in 1996.  At that time they were all in seaside resorts (except Harrogate, which is pretty much a seaside resort, only without the sea) but now we’re often in cities.  My conferences have also changed from having too much time on my hands but at least being able to attend whatever I want, to now being busy with work commitments for most of the day. But despite that, conference is that moment of the year when I get re-enthused and come away feeling upbeat and ready for the political year ahead.  So here’s my review of this year’s Liberal Democrat Conference which is just a random outpouring of things I’ve enjoyed, a few thoughts and the things I’ve learnt:

  1. The Liberal Democrats are generally at ease with where they are and with being in government.  Nick Clegg summed it up in his speech with the comment that it’s “not easy, but right”.  Like many people I know, I was fully behind the coalition despite my years of hating the Tories.  I still dislike the Tories, (although Labour’s behaviour is starting to make them become more hated), but I realise it was the right thing to do.  Even those who aren’t keen on Nick Clegg have pretty much accepted the coalition and whilst they may not agree with everything (and in some cases, not agree very much) they are starting to enjoy government.  It’s not easy.  Those of us at the grassroots who get no material benefit from the coalition, may get a lot of flack, but actually being able to do something rather than talking about it and being taken seriously (you should see the number of journalists, outside observers and exhibitors we now get), makes it worth it.
  2. A good speech can re-invigorate you.  I’m not just talking about the leader’s speech or the other big set speeches, but far more so is the other good speeches and debates you hear in the fringe meetings.  Those who don’t go to conference (and I’ll explain a few things in this review for non-conference goers) often don’t realise that the vast majority of time is not spent in the auditorium debating policy and listening to speeches, but a lot of it is spent in fringe meetings with discussions involving the party’s parliamentarians and a host of outside speakers, (including some from other parties), who get invited along, and in training sessions.  I went to a small number of fringe meetings because of my work commitments, but the best I went to was on community politics and I’ll write about this later.
  3. I’m getting old and can’t cope with long days and late nights.  One of the great things with conference is that after attending for many years you acquire many friends from all over the country, and this is the one time you get to see them all in one place at the same time.  For that reason, you end up being very late at night drinking more than you should and chatting to people.  Sometimes that would involve staying up until 3am or 4am.  But this year I just couldn’t do it and had to have two early nights and even the later nights were earlier than usual.
  4. Whilst on the subject of drink, the amount that hotels charge for drinks is horrendous.  Normally I would never drink in hotel bars, but at conferences they are where everyone gravitates to as it’s where the key party members stay and they are usually prepared to serve people until very late.  But £4.00 for a pint of lager is surely far from reasonable.  Y0u know who you are, Hyatt Birmingham.
  5. Sarah Teather should stick to just doing capable speeches and not doing gags.  She’s a very good constituency MP and can do a very good speech, but her jokes at this conference were just dire.
  6. RNIB do a good conference stand.  It was designed to look like a haberdasher’s shop on the basis that “a stitch in time saves nine” and that doing proper eyesight checks now and spending money on cataract operations saves money overall.  But the effort and the detail that went in to their stand was unbelievable.  For those who worry about the cost of it, they had a sponsor pay for the stand.  I should declare an interest as a friend of mine works for RNIB, but it was genuinely impressive.
  7. Birmingham is a great conference venue.  We’ve changed quite a lot in the places we’ve had conferences recently, although after Gateshead Newcastle next Spring we will have reached the end of new venues for now (apparently we might have done a few in Manchester as well if it wasn’t for Labour booking it up years ahead, and as it’s the consecutive week to our conference we can never go to the same place as Labour do in that year as there isn’t time for the change over).  What I like about Birmingham though is that the hotels and the ICC are very close together as are places to eat.  Although I do like Birmingham generally anyway.
  8. The discussion at conference is not the leadership.  One of them is how we turn things round and communicate all the good stuff that’s happening in government.  There’s lots of it and yet we don’t get that message across, but people seem up for the challenge and trying to turn round the views of those who are sceptical about the government.  For those who don’t know what the Lib Dems in government have achieved, can I recommend the website What the Hell Have the Lib Dems Done.
  9. The really big talk at conference is Connect and it’s going to be a revolution for the party.  For a long time the Lib Dems were ahead of the other parties on how it used technology to campaign.  Then we gradually slipped behind.  Now with the new Connect system we are going to move massively ahead again with an online campaign database that is light years ahead of where we are now.  I was privileged to be asked to be on the decision team that recommended what campaign databases we used in the future, and so I saw it for the first time months ago, but everytime I see it again I find another amazing feature that I didn’t know about.  Thank you to NGP VAN who have created an amazing product and are genuinely nice interesting people to have got to know.
  10. Jurys Inn remain my favourite hotel chain.  Nice hotels and not as expensive as many other decent chains.
  11. Some fringe meetings provide great food especially when they’re sponsored (thank you to The Co-operative and B&Q), however you can’t rely on the same from Liberal Democrat regional parties to provide a brilliant buffet.  For evidence, see here for South Central and South East’s catering offer.
  12. Lib Dems just get massive security now.  A lot of people in Sheffield were (perhaps understandably) unhappy with the size of the fence that surrounded Sheffield’s City Hall for our Spring Conference and the cost of the policing, and the members were fed up of the checks on badges and the bag and body scanning.  But remarkably some people were convinced that the protection for our conference was just about us trying to look important.  But it’s just the way things are.  Sheffield was an issue because the conference venue was central in the city.  In Birmingham it wasn’t but it still involved shutting Broad Street, one of the city centre’s busiest streets.  While I’m on the subject though, what the hell does pelkin mean?  The police operation for the conference was Operation Pelkin, which apparently is what they always use for political party conferences.  A few us thought they should have had something more Lib Dem like Operation Sandals or Operation Beard, but given that most ‘operations’ tend to be called something dramatic like Operation Brute Force, the most Lib Dem we could think of was Operation Muscular Liberalism.
  13. The Lib Dem Voice Blog of the Year Awards reminded me that I should just keep blogging as much as possible as I am probably capable it’s just that I lack the time and I worry about the implications of me saying something stupid.  But when you are reminded of the good stuff people write and you remember all the things you wish you’d blogged on then didn’t bother I just want to do it more.  But what astounds me is how worked up some people get about who did or didn’t win.  It’s just for fun!
  14. It’s bizarre how many people I now know.  One of the consequences of having lived all over the country and working in a job where 3,000 or so party members see regular emails from you, is that people know your name even if you don’t know then.  It’s bizarre but quite interesting.
  15. Finally, Nick Clegg’s brilliant speech.  It seems to have gone down very well with members and with some of the media.  It certainly helps when you finish conference on a brilliant speech that really made Nick look like a statesman.

David Jackson

David Jackson (right) with Sebastian Coe. Image credit: Yorkshire Life (see below for more details)

There’s been an unfortunately high number of posts on this blog about people dying.  Most have been other people in politics but this is about someone who has had a far bigger impact on my life in general than anyone in politics.  David Jackson was my Geography teacher for five years and Head of Sixth Form at Tapton School in Sheffield for all the time I was there, and he passed away after a long fight against cancer on 25th August.

I suppose Mr Jackson, it seems odd calling him by his first name even though I later got to know him on a personal level as a resident of my council ward rather than just as a former teacher, was always likely to be a favourite given that geography was my favourite subject.  But what made me love geography lessons with Mr Jackson was his passion for the subject in general rather than just following the syllabus.  Our lessons weren’t just about a text book and being talked at and tested but involved giving us loads of background reading in the form of articles photocopied out of magazines and newspapers that kept us up to date on the subjects that we were studying.  The Economist was a particular favourite.  He also used areas he knew well to illustrate topics we were covering rather than just being discussed in the abstract, so my knowledge of urban land use is based on the A34 in Birmingham (I seem to remember that his son lived in the city) and our studying of tourist honeypot sites came from Bakewell (where he grew up).

But Mr Jackson was also quirky at times.  Before he became one of my two geography teachers in the third year (now Y9) he had a reputation as being very strict and I was pretty worried about having as my teacher.  In my first lesson with him as my geography teacher he made us all stand up and told us a series of inter-related geographical ‘facts’ and asked us to sit down when we didn’t believe something he said.  I seem to remember it culminating in the ‘fact’ that the Earth is gradually tilting to one side because the population of China is so great.  He finished the lesson by telling us that everything he’d said in that lesson was a lie and we should question everything and not believe everything we are told.  From that bizarre but interesting start I moved from being nervous about having Mr Jackson as a teacher to by the end of the sixth form being more relaxed with him than any other teacher as you simply knew where you stood and had immense respect for him.  His reputation however as someone who was strict meant children in other years were sometimes sent to him as punishment, with a favourite way of teaching them a lesson being to get them to put a dot in every square on a sheet of graph paper and if they were still playing up to get them to then put a circle round each of those dots. Mind you given that the pupil then sat in on one of our lessons and would have seen a very different relaxed side to Mr Jackson I wonder how he kept his reputation as being strict.  Certainly those who had never had him as a teacher even now seem to have a different view of him from those who only saw him as Head of the Sixth Form.

Another memory of him was a pride in showing how successful the sixth form was, how well its former pupils did, and using statistics and graphs to prove how much work pupils had to do if they were to go in to the sixth form.  I particularly remember his graph that plotted individual GCSE results against A-level results proving that those people who struggled in their GCSEs would continue to struggle at A-level.  However, those who had good results at GCSE couldn’t be sure of achieving good results at A-level.  Perhaps that isn’t a huge revelation but it certainly had an impact on parents and pupils and marked out Tapton School’s sixth form as one that pushed its pupils to do well and that particularly encouraged people in to good universities.

In lessons he’d be far more than just a teacher.  He took a genuine interest in what the people he taught did outside which could range from discussing football (if I remember right he was a Manchester City fan but a Sheffield Wednesday shareholder) to what activities people were involved with in their spare time.  I also remember that he couldn’t understand why anyone would want to move to Bakewell when they retired as they’d be further from the hospitals that they’d inevitably need as they got older.

It is impossible to mention Mr Jackson without also referring to Sebastian Coe.  Mr Jackson rarely mentioned his ‘claim to fame’ as the person who inspired Seb Coe to join his local running club, but it was known that he had taught him geography and that they had become good friends.  When I was about to finish writing this post I wanted to find out what there was on the internet about him already, and this article from Times Educational Supplement about why he was Sebastian Coe’s best teacher says many of the things that I have said.  It’s gratifying that other people found him to be the same sort of person that I did.

Mr Jackson retired as a teacher when I also left Tapton School to go to university to study geography.  Much to the surprise of his former pupils, Mr Jackson then set up a hat shop in Totley and married a fellow teacher Alison Mitchell.  Pupils usually pick up on when teachers are in a relationship, but this one was a complete surprise to everyone.  With Miss Mitchell also being my former biology teacher and someone who made her own subject as interesting as she could – no science has ever been a strong subject for me, but biology was the lesser of three evils so she never had a headstart with me – it seemed appropriate they should be together.

I’ve tried to think if there was one specific moment that had a particular impact 0n me, but there isn’t one.  David Jackson was simply an excellent teacher all round that made school and learning enjoyable and was a great person as well.  It is very appropriate that some years later he was included in the TV adverts “everyone remembers a good teacher” as that is certainly what he was for me and for that I will always be grateful.

Image credit: The photograph used here came from the Yorkshire Life website and may be copyrighted.  If that is the case I can remove it if necessary, but given the nature of the article, that this isn’t a commercial site and that this is the only photo I can find online that shows him as I remember him, I hope I can continue to use it.