Friday, September 23, 2005

Thoughts on the Blackpool Conference

My article from today's Liberal Democrat News.

Armchair Conference

Viewing this year's Liberal Democrat Conference from a distance has its compensations. You get to see the party as other see us. And better, you don't have to visit Blackpool.

Adrian Sanders described it as "a sad place that has lost its heart". It is not alone in that amongst seaside resorts, but things have always been on a larger scale in Blackpool.

Some see the widespread dislike of the town as snobbish. But the British seaside is struggling because the working class has grown more affluent and expects higher standards. Which is a thoroughly good thing.

Tom McNally, the town's most famous son, made a game attempt to defend Blackpool on the Today programme. It's an important piece of social history, he told us.

But then so is Dartmoor Prison, and you wouldn't want to spend a night there either.

* * * *

The more parties shape their conferences to suit television, the less interested television becomes. There is still coverage, but you rarely get to listen to the debates for any length of time. Instead there is endless speculation about what will happen next and a succession of interviews with MPs.

The question that has dominated the press this week is: "What do the Liberal Democrats stand for?" As every MP interviewed gives a list of policies rather than articulates a distinctive philosophy, no one is much wiser

Nor has it been clear what the conference as a whole stands for. We have come over as being more certain about what we are against.

Take the debate on the post office. Norman Lamb's proposals were referred back, despite his cautious attempt to revive the Liberal dream of workers owning their own businesses.

That's fine. But under the current arrangements sub post offices are closing daily, often taking the accompanying small shops with them. What is the Liberal Democrat answer to this? Nothing anyone read or watched this week will have told them.

Equally, there are all sorts of important questions about the future of the European Union. Should Turkey be allowed to join despite its human rights record? Where do the boundaries of Europe lie? Does the EU exist to further free trade or defend us from it?

Monday's debate generated a lot of heat - Ostrich! Xenophobe! Recount! - but nothing in the media gave the impression that it engaged with these issues. If anything, conference seemed to cling to the certainties of the past.

* * * *

The heroine of the week was Sarah Teather. She spoke up for local democratic control of public services and proposed scrapping the absurd Standards Board for England.

And Ed Davey got lots of attention by calling for a house system to be used to "break down large, soulless concrete comprehensives". This was chiefly because he presented it as the system used at Harry Potter's Hogwarts.

A clever piece of spin. But you don't have to be a wizard to see that the real question is why we create large, soulless schools in the first place.

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