Friday, September 21, 2007

Liberal Democrat News: Calder at Conference

I have a column in today's Liberal Democrat News. It was written at an internet cafe in Brighton.

Unfortunately, you cannot visit Craig Murray's website at the moment. But you can still buy his book.

The joy of fame

It can be dangerous to make generalisations about Conference. I remember sitting in the bar of the Metropole Hotel in Brighton one evening last year and chatting to a distinguished Liberal Democrat. We agreed there were more young people in the throng of Conference attenders than there used to be and that this was an encouraging sign for the party.

Then a third person joined us and explained that everyone was looking younger to us because we were getting older.

And this year I called in at the Metropole on the first evening and was shocked at how quiet it was. Was the party in terminal decline? No, because I then found out that it is not the main Conference hotel this year.

Even so, I think there are some things you can safely say about the way Conference is changing. One of these is that something odd has happened to the fringe meetings.

At one time these were largely organised by internal party groups with the aim of raising their profile or changing party policy. Now they are organised by outside charities and pressure groups with the aim of signing up the Liberal Democrats to their agenda.

This has its positive side: it shows we are taken seriously by all these lobbyists. And the free refreshments are welcome too.

But the danger is that we will stop thinking for ourselves and just buy in policy from these outside. At its worse this could lead to a ‘rainbow coalition’ view of politics where we will win if only we can stitch together enough interest groups.

That didn’t work for Labour or the American Democrats in the 1980s, and it won’t work for us.
One thoroughly old-fashioned fringe meeting I attended – the speaker arrived late and there was not a refreshment in sight – was organised by Liberator and the Lib Dem peace and security people.

Craig Murray was certainly worth waiting for. He is the former ambassador to Uzbekistan who stood against Jack Straw in Blackburn at the last election, and he gave a riveting talk about his experiences. If you want to know more about him then seek out the lively website he runs or buy his book Murder in Samarkand.

The latest news is that the director Michael Winterbottom is planning to film the book with Steve Coogan playing Craig. There can’t be many former chairs of Dundee Liberal Students who have had a movie made about them.

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