Monday, 14 March 2011

LibDem Spring Conference 2011: dispiriting and upflifting

The advent of the coalition government has reduced the threat of a police state but seems to have shifted the heavy surveillance to the ruling parties themselves. The rights and wrongs of the heavy police and security personnel presence in Sheffield are worth a separate essay, but I want to deal with the effects.

The conference venue, the city hall, was barricaded off with a two-metre solid steel fence. All attenders (except presumably for the very senior figures in the party who no doubt had a separate secure entrance) had to first pass through a single heavily-manned gate, then be given an international airport-style shake-down. One representative even complained that his diabetic wife had a sugar solution taken away from her. The whole procedure must have added about five minutes to my entry, given the amount of metal I usually have about my person and had to deposit in the security guards' trays, but even more lightly-loaded attenders suffered delays.

Two factors made the Sheffield situation worse: the fact that the security procedures were in place throughout the conference, not just for the high-profile events involving the appearance of the party leader; and, second, that there was no room for the fringe events within the city hall, so that these took place in the two main conference hotels - outside the "ring of steel". The result was irksome, to say the least.

On top of all this comes the ever-mounting cost of attending Conference. There is a lot to be said for holding our regular assemblies in central English cities. They are more accessible to not only representatives of English parties but also to Scots who baulk at travelling to a distant west country seaside town. However, overnight accommodation in Sheffield, or Birmingham, tends to be geared to the needs of business people, whose custom is not seasonal and who can be relied on to pay premium rates. There is little chance of a cheap deal in a B&B off-season, as is the case with a seaside resort.

The good bit

In spite of all the obstacles, there was a very good turn-out. Even the internal party business sessions, usually attended only by the LibDem anoraks, were popular and attracted more participation than usual.

The conference organisers seem to have made an effort to ensure that there would be real debate, that the event would be much more than a rally for the Dear Leader and the coalition government. The result was at least two very good debates whose outcomes were positive but also critical of ministerial policy. (There are podcasts available, as well as my own take on the English NHS debate at

As always, there was the buzz in the refreshment rooms, the bars, the corridors and the fringe meetings. Not even Facebook or CIX can replace this. Let us hope that the young activists who most benefit from it are not priced out of Conference in future.


Maelo Manning said...

Dear Frank,
It's a shame that we didn't see each other at conference. Are you going to the Autumn conference? Perhaps we could meet up then?

Frank Little said...

I might go to Birmingham, but it depends on cost and how oppressive the security measures are going to be.