Someone else's crisis

A unique experience for a Liberal Democrat Conference in recent years, another party is having the l

The first morning of Conference has a reassuring air about it. I had arrived the previous night after struggling through flash floods and rush hour traffic. This morning the sun was shining and all seemed right with the world.

Better still, and this is a unique experience for a Liberal Democrat Conference in recent years, another party was having a leadership crisis, not us. What will the media talk about now? Nick Clegg is secure in his office with the support of the party and nobody is taking out nomination papers to oppose him.

This year Liberal Democrat Conference has started a day early in an effort to make it more accessible to those who cannot get time off from their jobs. The first big debate therefore took place on the Saturday afternoon at which representatives discussed a wide range of radical initiatives to give UK Citizens a voice in Parliament.

Proposed measures include a more efficacious system of petitioning MPs and People’s Bills, whereby the six legislative proposals that receive the most petition signatures from registered voters in any given year would be guaranteed a second reading debate in the House of Commons. Proposals to give people the opportunity to veto unpopular Acts of Parliament through a referendum were rejected. Representatives were concerned that allowing people to trigger a plebiscite gathering one million signatures in 60 days would be open to abuse and would undermine the sovereignty of Parliament.

With Lembit Opik MP and Baroness Ros Scott lobbying behind the scenes for their respective Party Presidential campaigns I spent Saturday dodging canvassers for the respective camps before doing what Liberal Democrats like to do best. OK, it might take second place behind socialising in bars. I spoke at a fringe meeting on electoral reform.

At present the Welsh Assembly does not have the power to change the way that local Councils are elected. I tried to put that right through a private members bill only to see it voted down by Labour AMs. I am not giving up.

And then it was onto the blog awards. I was shortlisted for Best blog by a Liberal Democrat holding public office, the Tim Garden Award for short. It is the third successive year that I have been shortlisted for this award and was stunned to win it this year.

Although this is a Federal Conference it is also an opportunity to get publicity back home. All of the Welsh media have decamped here so we take every opportunity to get our message across. Sunday morning therefore involves a visit to a homeless hostel in Bournemouth followed by the launch of a new paper on affordable housing in Wales.

A confidential roundtable meeting with the Police Federation follows and then into the main hall to watch the Nick Clegg Question and Answer session. It really is a busy conference and because it is being held a week earlier than usual I am able to stay for the full five days without being called back to Welsh Assembly meetings.

Peter Black is Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly Member for South Wales West

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The dog at the end of the lead may be small, but in fact what I’m walking is a hound of love

There is a new, hairy face in the Hovel.

There is a new, hairy face in the Hovel. I seem to have become a temporary co-owner of an enthusiastic Chorkie. A Chorkie, in case you’re not quite up to speed with your canine crossbreeds, is a mixture of a chihuahua and a Yorkshire Terrier, and while my friend K— busies herself elsewhere I am looking after this hound.

This falls squarely into the category of Things I Never Thought I’d Do. I’m a cat person, taking my cue from their idleness, cruelty and beauty. Dogs, with their loyalty, their enthusiasm and their barking, are all a little too much for me, even after the first drink of the day. But the dog is here, and I am in loco parentis, and it is up to me to make sure that she is looked after and entertained, and that there is no repetition of the unfortunate accident that occurred outside my housemate’s room, and which needed several tissues and a little poo baggie to make good.

As it is, the dog thinks I am the bee’s knees. To give you an idea of how beeskneesian it finds me, it is licking my feet as I write. “All right,” I feel like saying to her, “you don’t have to go that far.”

But it’s quite nice to be worshipped like this, I have decided. She has also fallen in love with the Hovel, and literally writhes with delight at the stinky cushions on the sofa. Named after Trude Fleischmann, the lesbian erotic photographer of the Twenties, Thirties and Forties, she has decided, with admirable open-mindedness, that I am the Leader of the Pack. When I take the lead, K— gets a little vexed.

“She’s walking on a loose lead, with you,” K— says. “She never does that when I’m walking her.” I don’t even know what that means, until I have a think and work it out.

“She’s also walking to heel with you,” K— adds, and once again I have to join a couple of mental dots before the mists part. It would appear that when it comes to dogs, I have a natural competence and authority, qualities I had never, not even in my most deranged flights of self-love, considered myself to possess in any measurable quantity at all.

And golly, does having a dog change the relationship the British urban flâneur has with the rest of society. The British, especially those living south of Watford, and above all those in London, do not recognise other people’s existence unless they want to buy something off them or stop them standing on the left of the sodding escalator, you idiot. This all changes when you have a dog with you. You are now fair game for any dog-fancier to come up to you and ask the most personal questions about the dog’s history and genealogy. They don’t even have to have a dog of their own; but if you do, you are obliged by law to stop and exchange dog facts.

My knowledge of dog facts is scant, extending not much further beyond them having a leg at each corner and chasing squirrels, so I leave the talking to K—, who, being a friendly sort who could probably talk dog all day long if pressed, is quite happy to do that. I look meanwhile in a kind of blank wonder at whichever brand of dog we’ve just encountered, and marvel not only at the incredible diversity of dog that abounds in the world, but at a realisation that had hitherto escaped me: almost half of London seems to have one.

And here’s the really interesting thing. When I have the leash, the city looks at me another way. And, specifically, the young women of the city. Having reached the age when one ceases to be visible to any member of the opposite sex under 30, I find, all of a sudden, that I exist again. Women of improbable beauty look at Trude, who looks far more Yorkie than chihuahua, apart from when she does that thing with the ears, and then look at me, and smile unguardedly and unironically, signalling to me that they have decided I am a Good Thing and would, were their schedules not preventing them, like to chat and get to know me and the dog a bit better.

I wonder at first if I am imagining this. I mention it to K—.

“Oh yes,” she says, “it’s a thing. My friend P-J regularly borrows her when he wants to get laid. He reckons he’s had about 12 shags thanks to her in the last six months. The problems only arise when they come back again and notice the dog isn’t there.”

I do the maths. Twelve in six months! That’s one a fortnight. An idea begins to form in my mind. I suppose you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out what it is. But no. I couldn’t. Could I?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism