On Saturday I found myself in Eastbourne at the South East Lib Dems Regional Conference. In the recent election campaign, this was our main target seat in the south east – I received numerous emails saying ‘never mind your constituency, come and help out in Eastbourne’ or words to that effect – but the campaign was a success and now Eastbourne joins Lewes next door with a Lib Dem MP.
The conference was sold out weeks in advance and took place in a school a few miles from Eastbourne – lots of signs saying ‘always walk on the left’ did give some cause for comment.
After a drive where the sat nav took me round several motorways, I was in the main hall in time for the opening address where the new MP, Stephen Lloyd, welcomed us all and told us how he is settling in.
He made a good point that amongst the Tories there was a group of 30 or so who could fit John Major's description of the ’loony’ element. This is a group on the extreme right, look-after-the-rich, hate-the-poor, hate-foreigners, privatise-the-NHS, abolish-all-benefits etc – you get the picture. If the Tories had won the election with a small majority, this group would have controlled the agenda, like when John Major was given a hard time. Instead, people are saying thank god the Lib Dems are there to keep these guys on the fringes (for now!)
Chris Fox, the Chief Executive, took over, pointing out the difficulties we now face (not least the loss of £2m state grant) and how we could face the future. Having received numerous emails from him, it was good to see him in person and learn more about the party's approach.
At which stage, I sneaked off to the first training session, that of the new website to be launched soon. Our local party doesn’t use the web site very well and I am keen to get it going, as well as Facebook, Twitter etc to build up a dialogue and communications.
One ploughman's lunch later, I was back in the main centre to see Vince Cable – the hall was packed for this session. I had been concerned about Vince recently, as on television, such as Question Time, he had given me the impression of not enjoying government very much. However here he fully returned to form – putting in a bullish performance and rallying the party well. On business policy and the banks I felt he was spot on. But I still disagreed with the tuition fees decision, although he made an admirable defence which won some people over.
Back to training to hear about the new ‘Winning Teams’ initiative – an idea to encourage every local party (not just those in target seats) with training and mentoring to develop further. I got some ideas to take to our next executive meeting.
Then our deputy leader, Simon Hughes, arrived and spoke optimistically for the future. I've a lot of time for Simon and he too spoke well and raised spirits. He also made a very valid point - that we can't keep blaming Labour for the deficit - it was partly Labour's actions over the years but also the world recession and the behaviour of the banks. He praised Gordon Brown for his quick actions at the time of the banking crisis.
This is a fair argument, and I have said how I would like to co-operate further with the local Labour party to try to get the Tories out of power in the council. Unfortunately Labour have decided to concentrate all their fire on us - reading their blog you wouldn't believe the Conservatives exist - so there's not much prospects there.
There was some audience participation – Simon asked us (1) should our MPs back Vince Cable and vote for the Browne Report, (2) should they go by the coalition agreement and abstain or (3) should they honour the pledge to the NUS and vote against the Browne report? The vote was almost exactly split three ways - which is typically Liberal! (I voted for option 3).
As well as the various events and training, there were stalls from local parties fund raising and leafleting, both the candidates for Party President gave hustings which, unfortunately, I couldn’t fit in, and Lib Dem Image was there with their merchandise.
Finally, after the debate on tuition fees, I decided to call it a day and see how the sat nav was going to take me back home. The direct route from Eastbourne up to north Kent, with hardly an A-road in sight, was an interesting experience.
Overall, an interesting day which flew by. There’s only so much you can do in one day but hopefully next year I can make it to either the spring conference in Sheffield or the main conference in Birmingham. A lot will have happened by then!