Saturday, January 14, 2006

Meeting The Challenge

Just got back from the Meeting The Challenge conference in London (aside from a disastrous post-journey curry in Oxford. I just won't describe the service... well, actually I will, in my restaurant column next week!).

Anyway, the conference had originally been intended as part of a consultative process on the future direction of the party. it actually retained that purpose rather well, with overt leadership contesting happening in the hust first thing. Overall, I enjoyed the event, although I think it could have done without the breakout groups. They were a good idea, but given the fact that few floor contributors ever kept anywhere close to the topic of the session, they dragged at times.

But the main thing you're interested in is the hust, of course. My Oxford Lib Dem colleague Stephen Tall (despite having a blog that doesn't display properly in Firefox) has already rated the speeches. As a declared Huhne supporter, there's not much point me doing the same, so I'll share some brief observations, made in as dispassionate mood as possible:

Menzies Campbell: The second half saved Menzies, because he started out very poorly, probably because of the sound problems with his mike, which appeared to throw him. Some great soundbites, but the whole thing was a bit so-so. He played to his strengths, and it was certainly solid by the time he wrapped up. Probably confirms his status as the candidate nobody dislikes, but nobody is fired up about.

Simon Hughes
: Without a doubt, the most stylish performance... but he is already established as the slick and charming candidate. What we didn't see was any evidence of heavy-weight policy. A great showman, who will be in the final two, I am sure, but could, on this performance, once again be pipped to the post.

Chris Huhne: A very solid performance that took control of an original issue and offered distinctive ideas. Huhne is clearly now sketched as the most substantive, issues-based candidate, with gravitas to equal Menizes. What he'll want to do is show his witty and friendly side more in future speeches, as his biggest asset is surely his likeable, human nature-- the same quality that served Charles Kennedy so well.

Mark Oaten: In fairness, Mark was faced with the situation, today, of being a goldfish in a shark tank. The grassroots activists I know are unanimous in their suspision of him, mostly because of a reported comment, about which Stephen Tall has already blogged. Even so, Oaten came over as a little unnatural and staged, especially with his stunt of speaking without notes for the first four minutes--- and then returning to them for the rest!

After this, the media left us in peace to the rest of the day. It kicked off with a talk on Lib Dem electoral breakthrough from an Essex psephology professor, and then returned to policy issues when Steve Webb, Vince Cable and David Howarth locked horns on economic policy. Except, actually, they didn't lock horns, as they all seemed to agree completely. Noting this, David Howarth showed that he was first among (some really pretty intellectual) equals, by instead talking about the philosophical assumptions behind tax and economics policy.

Once lunch had been consumed (a very important thing for Lib Dems), the afternoon saw breakout groups on various topics, followed by a concluding discussion on what the narrative of the party should be. I thought that session worked rather well, despite a few digressions, and provides some good material. Lord Rennard summarised, accurately, the point of the session, when he observed that our "We Propose, We Oppose" list of policies at the last election felt like a shopping list, but without any instructions on what the dish they constituted would be. Hence, the need for a coherent and clear explanation of what we're about; a narrative.

Overall, it was an optimistic day. As always at Lib Dem conferences, you're struck by how friendly and dedicated the activists are, and find yourself chatting to people about their last election result, or the council in their area, or the qualities of Chris Huhne, very easily. The leadership contest actually focused, rather than distracted, the serious deliberations on honing the party's distinctive message during the coming parliament; a good thing.