My first conference was Eastbourne in 1986. It was a sober affair and not just due to the lack of free alcohol. The debates were worthy, but generated little media interest. The lunchtimes and evenings were filled with fringe meetings, none of which had as much as a crisp on offer, let alone a glass of wine. Lunch and dinner had to be squeezed in somehow between the debates and the fringes.
25 years later so much has changed. We still have debates, but they are interspersed with 20 minute speeches from Government ministers and the decisions we make are no longer ignored – they have a good chance of being enacted. The fringe meetings still go on every lunchtime and all evening – a staggering 500 at this conference. The big difference is that companies and organisations now provide free food and drink to tempt us along to their meetings which solves the problem of finding time to eat.
This year, we weren’t just tempted by food – the anti phone hacking campaign – Hacked Off, claimed that Hugh Grant would be addressing their meeting. I didn’t seriously think that a Hollywood filmstar would turn up to a conference in Birmingham, but turn up he did. Hugh gave a passionate speech on phone hacking to a packed room and afterwards politely posed with us for photos.
Before Conference, I was asked to take part in Newsnight on the Monday night as part of a hand picked audience of 80 Lib Dems. I was sat on the front row as Jeremy Paxman wanted to question me regarding the tax policy I had created. It didn’t quite go according to plan. The audience objected to his general questions on student fees and being asked if we would’ve preferred to go into Coalition with Labour. Paxman didn’t get the answers he wanted and it all turned into a rumpus. And only one of the carefully positioned audience actually got questioned by Paxman.
The hero? That’s Martin Lewis, he of www.moneysavingexpert.com. I’m a huge fan of Martin who campaigns against debt and stands up for the most vulnerable people in society. He spoke at the Consumer Credit Counselling Service (CCCS) fringe meeting on consumer debt. I introduced myself as the person who drove through the policy to raise the income tax threshold and it turns out that Martin is actually a fan of mine.
And the popstar? A pop quiz was put on by UK Music and hosted by Fergal Sharkey, the former lead singer of the Undertones and solo artist who seemed surprised that so many of us remembered his songs. Sadly, my team came 12th (out of 27 teams). Well, do you know whose 1969 album was sold in a brown paper cover? Or could you recognise ‘Oh Geno’ by Dexy’s Midnight Runners if it was played backwards? Or know which town has a museum containing the stage clothes from a member of Black Sabbath? Now if those questions had been on Lib Dem policy……