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Lib Dem Conference Review 2011

23 September 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

6 September 2011

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.

Reforming the reformers: the battle to run the Electoral Reform Society

23 August 2011

I have a confession to make.  I might be a Liberal Democrat, but electoral reform is not an issue that gets me really excited.  It’s not that I don’t believe in it.  Far from it.  I think electoral or more precisely political reform, is hugely important and I have strong opinions on it.  It’s just that other political issues are the ones I get the most animated about.  Like pretty much all Lib Dems though, it is just one of the issues that makes me a party supporter, and contrary to what some people assume about Lib Dem members it’s one of the reasons I am a Lib Dem and it’s not because I’m a Lib Dem that I believe in it.  I suppose that lack of excitement about it is one of the reasons why I hadn’t thought about joining the Electoral Reform Society before.  But the Alternative Vote referendum result was one of the reasons why I decided to join fairly recently.

There’s no point me going over here all the reasons why I think the Yes campaign failed as there’s been some pretty illuminating articles about this already, including this damning report from Andy May who worked on the campaign.  But from my personal point of view as someone who wasn’t closely involved but tried to do his bit to support it, a few things stand out as worth saying:

  • There was almost no on the ground campaign that touched voters in their homes and the little there was only existed because of Lib Dem grassroots activists demanding leaflets and artwork.  I delivered a lot of Yes leaflets during the campaign (whether the content was effective is a different issue), but that was all I saw except for the Yes ‘freepost’ which arrived three days after the No freepost and three days after my postal vote had arrived.
  • The failure to actually get all people on the Yes side to campaign actively in support.  Some Lib Dems weren’t enthused that much because it wasn’t proportional representation but campaigned anyway as it was the best reform we were likely to get anytime soon.  However, Yes supporters in both Labour and the Conservatives were conspicuous by their absence and preferred party political advantage over winning a referendum on something they believed in.  For  example, my local Labour MP Paul Blomfield was actually a supporter of the Yes campaign and yet he had a very low profile on the issue within the constituency.  He did write an article in support and help at a stall, but the help was limited which was a shame when he could have carried a certain amount of local support with him for the campaign.  I understand this was a national Labour Party decision.  But far worse than not giving much help was that leaflets went out from the Labour party in his constituency telling people that the Lib Dems are now so bad that they want to rig the electoral system to help them stay in power.  If he disagreed with his local party on the Alternative Vote I would have thought he should at least have got the party’s leaflets to be neutral on the issue.
  • From what I’d heard about the media campaign I expected quite a few endorsements of the Yes campaign in the national press, including some newspapers that weren’t obvious Yes supporters.  In the end most of these never materialised.  Whether that was because the newspapers changed their minds or we were misled I don’t know, which could show either naivety or incompetence.
  • On a more positive note, I thought the Yes campaign did do a few good high profile stunts, such as a flash mob event at Sheffield Station and the polling day was very effective with attempts at getting people to vote and having little Yes ‘flags’ stuck in to the grass verges of roundabouts.  These may have helped damage the Lib Dem council election vote, by bringing out Yes voters who then voted against the Lib Dems, but they probably helped do the job they were intended to do which is bring out some extra Yes supporters too.  Sheffield actually had the highest percentage voting Yes in Yorkshire and so maybe it was a localised success.

So to the Electoral Reform Society (ERS).  It is right that the mistakes made in the referendum cannot all be blamed on ERS, far from it.  But they were the lead organisation in the campaign and seconded all their staff and so they do bear some responsibility.  But far more important to me now is that given the failure of the referendum campaign we need an active campaigning organisation gathering together all those people enthused about electoral reform to keep campaigning.  It’s very tempting to assume that now the referendum has failed to just say that’s it and forget all about the issue because we don’t expect another referendum within the next 20 years at least.  But those people who do support electoral reform have to keep the issue in the public eye and keep explaining why it’s important, and perhaps more importantly bring together people who support electoral reform to work together to build an enthusiastic and interesting campaigning organisation that people want to be part of. The biggest reason I haven’t joined ERS in the past was because it came across as a staid organisation that was more interested in abstract discussion about the merits of electoral reform rather than an organisation that was creating exciting campaigns to actually campaign for it.

The closing date for voting in the ERS council elections is on Friday this week and my votes have gone in.  It’s well known now that there is a slate that is seeking to get elected with the express purpose of reforming the way ERS works to create the very thing that I’ve been wanting – an active campaigning organisation. What’s good about this slate is that it includes people from all parties and none as well as people who are new to campaigning but enthused by the referendum campaign and people with years of campaigning know how but left thoroughly depressed by the way the referendum campaign operated. The person who sums it up for me is John Ault who wrote on his blog the reasons why the slate exists and why he is standing. I admit to being personal friends with John, but I also know that he has the professional expertise that an organisation like ERS could do with. But he isn’t the only person standing for ERS council with these skills and so if you have a vote please use it wisely to create a campaign for electoral reform that we can all be proud of.

Still time (just) to vote in the 2011 Total Politics Blog Awards

19 August 2011

I’ve pretty much given up any hope of ever appearing in the rankings of the Total Politics Blog Awards again, unless I really get my act together and start blogging regularly again.   However, for the others who do manage it then there’s just time to vote in the 2011 Blog Awards.  I know some people don’t like this beauty contest, but I think political blogging, in fact any sort of blogging, is a really good thing to encourage and appearing in these lists does give a bit of encouragement and a boost.  I know when I first started I was pretty chuffed when people responded positively to something I’d written, and hopefully this will give the participants a similar boost.  Those at the top of the blogging lists are usually well established confident people, but what’s great about these awards is that those who appear further down the list are fairly new people who have only just got in to politics, never mind blogging.  Everyone is pretty much starting off on a level playing field and it doesn’t take long for you to become known in the ‘blogosphere’.

The closing date is today and so there isn’t much time – click on the logo to vote.

I found the Total Politics blog directory and the list of bloggers on Lib Dem Blogs as a useful reminder of who there is.  There are plenty of non-Lib Dem blogs that I read, although most aren’t political.  As it’s against the rules to encourage people to vote a particular way I won’t say here who I voted for, but what I am thinking of doing in the future is writing an occasional post on this blog of those blogs and websites (political and non-political) that I enjoy reading.

London riots

8 August 2011

It seems slightly wrong to be writing about the riots in London.  After all, this is such a huge incident it seems that anything I write is trivial, but after reading much of what others have said I wanted to write my reaction.

Oddly, I wasn’t aware of any of the run-up to the rioting as I spent the weekend in Buckden in the Yorkshire Dales where there was no mobile phone reception.  When I did become aware it seemed like a localised problem.  What’s astonishing and unprecedented (in recent years at least) is for something like this to spread at such speed to so many unconnected areas.

This is thuggery and unthinking violence that has no political or worthy cause behind it.  Yes, there are of course people angry at the moment.  People in Tottenham are angry at the death of Mark Duggan, but we don’t yet know of exactly what happened there.  There are people around the country angry with the government because of the cuts, but there is no evidence that made any difference here.  I’m disappointed that some people have tried to make those connections, in particular the opportunism of Ken Livingstone.  After all, do we really think that looters angry with political decisions by the government would decide that the response is to specifically target mobile phone stores and sports shops?  No, surely if they were angry with political decisions they’d have targeted either indiscriminately or they’d have gone for currently unpopular institutions such as banks or government.  There will of course be some political causes but I suspect it’s a lot more long-term than the last twelve months.  I don’t know Tottenham, but attacking and burning down a building that seems to be one of the symbols of the area shows a complete lack of respect for the community and really caring for other people, and it makes you suspicious of any political motive.

The person who I have been most impressed by so far is David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham.  He’s been measured and calm, and avoided jumping to conclusions about the riots.  But what I think is most striking is the way he has truly stood up for his community by showing how the majority are against what has happened.  In today’s Sunday Telegraph, (I hasten to add it isn’t a paper I normally read but it happened to be in the coffee shop I was in earlier today), Andrew Gilligan praised David Lammy for his approach and his article I believe sums up why I like what he had to say.

So far, none of this has touched a part of London I know.  I’ve been to Wood Green and although I spent quite a bit of time in Croydon as a child as my aunt, uncle and cousins lived there, I don’t remember it well.  But just reading the messages on Twitter and Facebook from friends who are close to the scenes of some of these riots, it is pretty scary.  It seems that no matter where you live in London, there is no guarantee you are immune from what is going on.  It’s a scary time and appalling that it is happening as it is affecting ordinary people with no connection to anything that has happened.  But whilst social media has been vilified a little bit for helping the riots spread, it has also helped those of us who have friends in the areas affected feel reassured that they are OK.

Finally, if you haven’t seen this video from an angry Hackney resident telling the rioters where to go, it should be viewed.  It just shows the real face of the community and why dismissing the whole community as all the same is wrong:


Image credit: I’m not sure who to credit the photograph at the top of this photo to, as it has appeared on several website.  Happy to credit the correct person or to remove it if necessary.

Song of the Week 3 – The Juvenile by Ace of Base

7 August 2011

This week’s choice is an odd one as I only discovered it today, which given that I didn’t get home until about half six was quite an achievement but since I listened to it, it has stuck in my head.

I’m a bit of a fan of James Bond.  Not just of the films, but also the theme tunes and also find it interesting which songs were considered as Bond themes but weren’t used.  There are various well known examples such as Saint Etienne and Pulp’s songs written for Tomorrow Never Dies.  But I was surprised to find that Ace of Base had also written one for Goldeneye, and that’s what The Juvenile is.  Ace of Base never got anywhere close to matching their early songs, and so I wouldn’t claim The Juvenile is anywhere near being one of their best songs.  What I found intriguing though was that someone on YouTube had set the music to the actual opening titles of the film to give you an idea of how it could have been and I think it fits quite well.  The original version had the words ‘the goldeneye’ instead of ‘the juvenile’ and there’s even a video online of this version being performed as well, although either way the words are still fairly nonsensical.

Song of the Week 2 – Skin & Bones by David J. Roch

29 July 2011

I half-heartedly started a ‘Song of the Week’ thread on my blog the other week.  I’m setting myself the challenge of continuing with this each week (although I can’t guarantee it will be the same day of the week).  Essentially, it’ll be a song that I love.  It might be particularly significant that week, it might be a song I’ve rediscovered, a song that I’ve heard for the first time or just one that I’ve liked for ages and have decided to include.  Whilst running the risk of being mocked for some of my choices, I hope it will encourage my friends to enjoy listening to a track that I also enjoy and perhaps re-evaluate some they’ve ignored.  My music taste was once described as ‘eclectic’, as well as much worse, but if people see eclectic in a positive way after a few weeks of this then I’m happy with that.

This week’s choice is one that I discovered as a result of Sheffield’s Tramlines Festival, which took place over last weekend.  The great advantage of Tramlines being free is that you can try stuff out and see if you like the band or singer.  If you don’t you can move on to a different venue, and if you do then great.  Last weekend involved me enjoying bands I knew I liked, discovering something new but also listening to some more songs from bands that I only knew through one song before.  David J. Roch was someone completely new to me, but is a Sheffield singer with an amazing voice who does melodramatic songs that start quietly and then soar in to a dramatic finale.  Skin and Bones is the one single of his available via iTunes, (although there is an EP available too), and is typical of his style of music.  I saw David J Roch perform at Soyo during Tramlines and although I enjoyed it and it encouraged me to seek out his music, I don’t think the acoustics of the venue flattered him.  I have enjoyed his music a lot more since downloading it from iTunes.  Finally, there aren’t many singers who include the trumpet on their tracks, but David J. Roch does and it really works well and feels very Yorkshire even if the rest of his style of music doesn’t.



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