ConfBlog #2: Attack of the Clones
September 17, 2008
There was something rather different about Conference this year. It was something to do with the people. There were far fewer bearded sandal-wearers (although they were about), and rather more people who, to not put too fine a point on it, looked rather like Nick Clegg.
It was odd. Omnipresent was the dark brown hair, the hint of a quiff, the slightly inelegant suit, and the conviction that the last thirty years hadn’t happened and that this was still the Liberal party. This was forceably rammed home at a debate on Re-inventing the State, the old SDP members’ response to The Orange Book. Richard Reeves, director of Demos and possessor of a quiff-in-waiting argued that the book’s authors, and by extension many of the people in the room, were social democrats who should join the Labour Party. This was because of their focus on the state as the solution to all of society’s ills, which the book’s title rather gave away.
Naturally, this rather got up the noses of the people who’d just been told they were in the wrong party, and the debate descended into a reunion of SDP members versus Reeves, who rather seemed to enjoy it. He may have been condescending, but at least he was amusing with it.
As the press has doubtless made obvious, this was merely an undercurrent of the far more significant exchanges taking place in the Conference Hall – the rebellion over which I referred to in my last post*. The debate on Clegg’s Make It Happen document took the form of a queer melange of competing alliances; on the one hand there were the out-and-out social democrats with their Old Trot fellow travellers, and on the other were the Quiffs and their born-again-Liberal allies. The most interesting factor in the debate, which the press entirely failed to pick up on, was that both sides were trying to out-Progressive the other. It was very much a case of ‘Empower the poor by giving them opportunities via the state’ versus ‘Empower the poor by giving them more control over their earnings’. The destination was the same; the distinction was in the journey.
As such the victory of the Quiff side did not represent a shift to the right, more of a shift of methodology. A leadership promoting a policy which called for the taxing of the rich to give to the poor being called right-wing is something that could only happen in the Liberal Democrats.
In keeping with that theme, I got an opportunity to address a Fringe event via a method and subject that could only succeed in the Lib Dems. The Electoral Reform Society ran a Dragons’ Den style event in which the winners of a public vote would get the chance to pitch their Big Idea for Democracy to a panel of judges.
I decided that I wanted to do this. And I had just the scheme in mind: a Federal Britain using the ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdoms as its constituent parts. I had never decided whether I actually thought it was a good idea as opposed to merely an amusing one, but the latter was enough to make the whole thing fun. But how to make sure that a ‘radical’ idea such as this one was voted top in a party containing more STV fetishists than Berlin contains people with more than a passing interest in rubber?
The answer was clear. I would run a campaign. I would select a target demographic, devise a message that would connect with them personally, and communicate it to them. Now, who would want to return to the 10th century? Who would find the idea amusing? The answer was clear. Geeks. Geeks would love that shit. So what else do geeks love, that I can somehow relate to democracy and Saxons?
Doctor Who. Specifically, the end of the third season wherein The Master is elected Prime Minister with the aid of a whole bunch of posters saying, ‘Vote Saxon’. This was an obscure reference, but hell, geeks love obscure references. So I made a collection of ‘Vote Saxon’ flyers and gave them out to geeky-looking-people around the Conference Hall.
I won. And so, I got to give my first talk at Conference. And I was honoured by one of the Dragons saying, “Only at the Lib Dem Conference could someone suggest a return to the tenth century.” I looked him in the eye, clasped my hand to my heart, and said “Sir, you make me proud.”
*And did, in the end, consist of handing out leaflets. WE’RE LIB DEMS, goddamnit.