ConfBlog#1: The Phantom Menace

September 12, 2008

“It’s a shit ‘ole”, said the taxi driver. “What?” I replied. “It’s a shit ‘ole, that hotel you’re going to,” he replied. “You’ve been conned, mate.”

This was not an auscipicious start to the Lib Dem Conference season. The taxi driver had complained about Lib Dems being tight-fisted bastards all the way from the train station, so I confirmed his prejudices by refusing to tip him. I had been dropped outside a hotel that resembled every seaside guesthouse since life first crawled from the oceans. It had awnings, and strange mannequins of fishermen in the windows. I approached the front desk, where the owners, who appeared to be husband and wife, were having a blazing row.  

“Err, hello?” I politely enquired. They stopped rowing for long enough to confirm my booking and take my card details. My card was declined, which I was rather expecting seeing as I didn’t have any money. I had been building up to my most sheepish smile just for the occasion. “Is there any way I could pay at the end?” I enquired of the wife. “This is the only card I have on me. No idea why it’s not working.” “No,” she replied. “We always take payment upfront.”

The husband then said, “It’s alright, pay at the end if you like.” “THAT’S RIGHT, JUST OVERRULE ME WHY DON’T YOU!” came the response from the wife. While the row erupted I took the key from the rack and snuck upstairs. The room was clean and didn’t appear to have anything else living in it, which is all I really want out of places to sleep. I headed off to the conference centre.

Bournmouth International Conference Centre may be a bit excessively named, unless the world has more reknown floating around than I have until now realised. It was hosting the first training sessions of Conference, and I was due to attend a session on messaging. Messaging in a campaign context is now a little behind the times; it’s all about the narrative you communicate to voters now. Indeed, the ossification of the Campaigns Department in this regard has been noticed by the Bones Commission, the internal body that recently produced a report on party reform. It recommended reducing the powers of the Chief Executive, Chris Rennard, who is at present responsible for much of our campaigning, and instead handing them over to a body much more easily controllable by the leader. This was, it said, to move the party away from merely being a leaflet delivery cult.

The Campaigns Department’s reaction to this threat to its previously unchallenged authority has been to rebrand itself. It’s got a pretty new half-bird logo, uses lots of single words as slogans (and doesn’t capitalise them, just to be modern), and still pumps out the same material into its training sessions.

But different parts of the reforms coming out of the Bones Commission and the Leader’s Office are going different ways. The Make It Happen initiative, which involves lowering the overall tax burden, has proven particularly unpopular. Indeed, during a long liquid lunch one of my contacts from another part of the party told me that there was going to be an effort at rebellion against it during conference. However, these being Lib Dems, this revolt is likely to take the form of leaflet distribution. After all, to do otherwise would be to violate the founding principles of the Cult of the Focus.