Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Comment is Free: The Lib Dem Conference stalls

I have another piece on Comment is Free this morning...

At home in the stalls

If you want know what the Liberal Democrats are really like, don't listen to the debates in the conference hall.

Don't even go to the fringe meetings that fill every function room in Brighton. These days they are organised by outside pressure groups here to seek the party's support rather than by Lib Dem members themselves.

Instead, you should visit the stalls area to see the way that the homemade and well-meaning sits alongside the professional and ambitious.

In a good year, commercial stalls can be a useful source of income to the Liberal Democrats. Back in the 1980s I spent a summer working for the Liberal party conference office. This being the old Liberal party, it was naturally housed in two semi-converted narrow boats moored deep in the Leicestershire countryside.

It was one of those crazy periods when the Liberal/SDP Alliance had just won a startling byelection and everyone thought it was going to form the next government. The phones were hot with companies ringing up to ask if exhibition space was still available. We kept increasing the price, and they kept agreeing to pay it.

This time things are calmer, but corporate exhibitors still provide a valuable service to Lib Dems at the conference: they are a source of free gifts.

By common consent, the most generous stall is the one run by the Trades Union Congress. It is handing out classy home office sets, including a fan that runs off your computer as you write.

Parents use these freebies as presents to salve their guilt at being away from their children for the week, but this year the fun to be had from them is limited. The Greater London Authority, for instance, is giving away a Top Trumps game, but it is one designed to teach you ways of reducing your carbon footprint.

Lib Dem children may appreciate the GLA's shower timer more: it ensures you stay in for just four minutes.

Stressed delegates can take advantage of the chillout zone run by the company Breathing Spaces. There delegates can escape the hurly burly and benefit from reflexology, shiatsu or Indian head massage at £10 a session. I did ask, but Ming Campbell has not been seen there yet.

Then there are the party stalls. Liberal Democrat Youth and Students are using theirs to campaign in favour of an emergency motion calling on the party to oppose deportations to Darfur.

You can buy campaigning materials from the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors. You can pick up the latest gossip from Liberator - the magazine that serves as the party's Private Eye as well as its New Statesman. You can take part in the Lib Dem History Group's poll to find the greatest Liberal. Mill, Keynes, Gladstone and Lloyd George are all on the ballot paper.

Whoever is in charge of the stalls area has a sense of humour. The Lib Dem Friends of Israel have been placed opposite the Lib Dem Friends of Palestine. The Lib Dem Christian Forum is next door to the Lib Dem Humanist and Secularist Group.

It is a tribute to the essential niceness of the party that so far no wall has been built and no one has been burned at the stake.

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