I always find that people who didn’t go to conference get a different impression about what happened at conference than those who did. This is because, for obvious reasons, the press are selective about what they can and do report. This was particularly the case in a weekend when the eyes of the Country inevitably and properly turned to Japan.
Some of the press come to Conference with a story already written and swarm around until they find someone or something to justify the story. Others have an open mind but naturally look to report on things which are newsworthy. Lots of people agreeing with each other does not represent such a good story does it!?
So I had three messages from Sheffield:
1.That the demonstrations against us were extremely muted. In total about 2,000 came instead of the 10,000 expected. Of those half were people who had genuine concerns and rightly wanted to express those concerns in a democratic way to a Party of Government. Well done to them. The other half were SWP types who will use any opportunity to try and ‘bring down’ capitalism! Of course they only do that before they grow up and become accountants or people in the higher echelons of the public service!
2.That that party did not fall apart under the strain of Government or anything else! Did we have disagreements – of course we did. Are those disagreements more manifest than in the other Parties? I hope so. Our conference is still a conference not a rally for the Leader. We are a democratic party and expect our Leaders to listen to what we say and then try and deliver as much of it as possible.
3.That the differences we had in the health debate were not as big as the agreements! In summing up the debate I said that that there were two main themes that united us:
The desire to break the power of Whitehall warriors. We cannot allow to continue the situation where only elected person in England, the Secretary of State, is answerable for the health service decisions. We all believe in localism, in returning greater power to locally elected people and to local clinicians and doctors who can make decisions on programmes and spending which are responsive to local circumstances.
The desire to bring about a greater diversity of provision. This is a different proposal to privatisation. There may be some services that are better run by a private operation especially now that any competition will be on quality not price. But there are many other providers such as social enterprises, the community and voluntary sectors which could take some responsibility for health delivery especially in that part of the provider spectrum where health care meets social care. Again the difference between the Lib Dems and the Tories and between some Lib Dems is the degree of this that is appropriate.
So much to the chagrin of our opponents we left Sheffield united haven given massive support to our Ministers and displayed massive pride in what some many of them are doing.
Now lest get on with the real stuff of life – elections. I am out with my Focus in about 10 minutes. When will you be delivering!
P.S. Will someone find out if Shirley Williams is still talking to me!? My description of her as “having the sanctity for the Lib Dems of a cross between the Queen Mother and Dame Vera Lynn”, was a compliment. HONEST!