My reflections on the 2012 Party Conference Season

Thank goodness it is over.

Well, that is the short version at least but actually there was quite a lot of interesting little moments and ideas and actions that hinted at future developments.  I have come out of the 3 weeks with conference flu, tiredness, some big ideas and the need to urgently get on with things.

To Brighton first where the weather was, hmm, challenging.  It felt relatively empty, not flat and not depressed but perhaps a recognition of the serious challenges the Lib Dems are facing – i would call the mood contemplative and perhaps pugilistic.  Universally hated by Labour and Tories, this is still a party that actually does have some decent people with good ideas – but with dearest Cleggy in charge their fortunes continue to slide.  David Laws was everywhere – that struck me in particular; Norman Baker was everywhere as well, but Norman is always everywhere at Lib Dem conference – i spoke to him on Monday night as he completed his 30th meeting with our West Mids transport fringe.  I admire his work ethic and his passion – and remember he is the only transport minister still in post since the Coalition came to power…

Running along the Brighton seafront early morning was a fab experience – gale force wind coming off the sea with hale and rain in preparation for a day of meetings is a life-affirming experience (honestly).  Brighton is a wonderful city and I look forward to returning next year at Labour Party Conference…

Manchester next and perhaps the best atmosphere of all three conferences.  I understand the Women’s Conference that kicked off proceedings on Saturday was excellent, all the delegates i spoke to had really found it of great value and i was commanded to send colleagues and comrades next year – i will, i promise!  The general mood was combative, this Party is up for the fight and we have to be because the Government is now in full swing with the cuts agenda and people are really suffering.

Along with that was the feeling that a lot of fresh ideas are really being generated now.  A fun example was the Prag Rad fringe on Monday evening which i very much enjoyed and was thrilled to come joint second with the esteemed Peter Kellner.

In my brief, transport, we had a certain Mr Wolmar on the 2016 London Campaign trail which was great to see.  We also had the big rail debate as the West Coast franchise fiasco came to light.  Labour along with the Tories and Lib Dems continue to reaffirm the cross party commitment to getting high speed rail built as quickly as possible and getting a truly national network under way.  The other key areas for transport outside of rail are the value of buses and the need to really enforce the principle of accessibility for all.  I spoke at another fringe on Connecting Britain and was pleased to get full support for devolving powers and funding to city regions and regional transport authorities to get stuff delivered that can make a real difference to regional economies.

Finally, the Tories in my home city.  Rumours had been circulating of a poor attendance but they seem to have got a number of last minute bookings that made the place seem fairly full.  The mood was odd really, a lot of positivity and work in progress but at the same time those continuing poll numbers are now putting doubt into the party faithful i am sure – along with that is the Boris show.  Boris is without doubt a great stand up performer and knows lots about the classics, but a leader, no – Gove is the man, or else Philip Hammond for a safe pair of hands if there is serous fallout.

In the Connecting Britain fringe i had the pleasure of the 2 Tory MPs on the Panel fully agreeing with my demands for the great cities that are not London getting powers and money to drive their economies and destinies forward.  Somehow there seems to be a serious lag between policy agreement and actually the doing part.  The paradox wasn’t answered (and i really did try to get an answer) as to how the Tories talk about high speed rail rebalancing the national economy as a key principle and then when we talk about aviation they revert back to London, the South East and Heathrow – i will continue to pester them on this front…

From the professional perspective, the West Midlands continues to find favour and friends and great support but we need to drive this into actual delivery of the powers and the money from Whitehall to the West Midlands to actually make things happen.

So farewell 2012 Party Conference Season.  The Lib Dems need to focus on rediscovering their identity and where they stand, Labour are making serious progress now but need to continue with unity, the Tories (and with Cameron just finishing his speech) need to consider how they are perceived by all of the rest of the country that are not the party faithful.  We re halfway through this Parliament, the second half will doubtless be even more fascinating than the first.

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