The party conference season is upon us again. That used to be a cue for a jolly week at some seaside resort talking politics, catching up with old friends and thinking of ever more inventive ways of making life difficult for the party establishment.
It is still of course a week at the seaside (this year it was Bournemouth for the Liberal Democrats) but in every other respect conference week is no longer what it used to be.
In part this is my own fault. A packed diary of meetings and briefings leaves less time to catch up with friends and a lot of the “jolliness” was missing this year was foregone as I am currently abstaining from alcohol completely in an attempt to shift some of the weight that has crept on over the years.
As for making trouble for the party establishment, well that too seems to be something of the past too. Party conferences of today are pretty tame affairs compared to their predecessors of 20 years ago.
I remember some tremendous debates on issues such as nuclear disarmament with contributions of real passion and genuine disagreement. Even in the Liberal Democrats, where policy making still remains in the hands of party members, debates of that sort rarely happen. This year, as the parties eye a general election in the spring, these debates are less likely to happen than ever.
Even so the conference managed to be upbeat and the party left Bournemouth in pretty good spirits. Nick Clegg rose to the occasion on the last day of the conference with one of the best conference speeches I have heard in a while. Nick has grown into the job of leader quite impressively.
It was put to me in one interview that I should be disappointed to be “flatlining” in the polls at 19 or 20 per cent. I allowed myself a wry smile at that one. Not that long ago we were “flatlining” at 12 per cent. Then all the commentators were predicting further descent and being squeezed out of the picture completely. That we have not been squeezed in that way is, I think, a result of the way in which Nick and Vince Cable in particular have stuck in and have not been afraid to speak the unpopular truths.
So with the Liberal Democrat conference out of the way attention will now turn to see how Labour and the Conservatives fare. For Gordon Brown the Labour conference could be a tricky week. Despite all the commentators’ speculation, however, it is difficult to see how he will fail to carry the vast bulk of his party with him. Next year’s Labour conference, the first post-general election, may be a much more lively prospect.
For the Conservatives the challenge is different again. David Cameron may look like doing better than any of his predecessors since John Major in 1992 but at this stage in the game that just means he has it all to lose. Party conferences may no longer be the great occasions that they used to be but they are still far from being boring.
Alistair Carmichael MP