Should the Lib Dems battle to be distinctive?

On the ground at the Lib Dem party conference

Lots of meet and greet today, and excessive use of that classic conference greeting style of enthusiastic "Hellos!" to someone while looking over their shoulder. It's larger but feels much the same as last year, a family getting together for a special occasion.

There may well be a tiff by the time the main course is served and the great auntie (former leader) says a little too loudly that she never liked that new son-in-law Cameron, but there is no sign of it so far. Pity the broadcast media, who are being regularly asked by their newsrooms, "Have you found the anger yet?" knowing that if they say, "No sign of it so far" they will inevitably be knocked off evening bulletins and their weekend in Liverpool will be wasted.

The genuine signs of real debate are around the issue of whether or not to be distinctive. How much do we celebrate our separateness in government versus how much do we argue that this is a fully integrated team? Nick Clegg in the Independent today is clear:

It is not a game of parallel shopping lists. What is emerging is something much more interesting – a mix, a blend of things.

Contrast that with the calls by Liberator Magazine to the left and Mark Littlewood, their usual nemesis, so far to the right that he quit the party a while ago. Both argue that showing distinctiveness is critical. Reading the runes, it is possible to suggest that Vince Cable also agrees with that view.

So what is the correct answer? Celebrate the differences? Or talk about the team? I suspect that the Holy Grail of "being distinctive" at a national rather than local level is far less realisable than people think. In pure communications terms, it requires time and resources, which are in short supply.

If you are a special adviser spending all your time putting out the fires of distinctiveness, is that time that would be better spent on getting on with the governing? Perhaps this is something that comes at the end of a five-year term, not the beginning. In the bars of Liverpool tonight, this eclectic family will be getting together to solve this issue.

Olly Grender is a political consultant. She was director of communications for the Liberal Democrats between 1990 and 1995

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For the first time in my life I have a sworn enemy – and I don’t even know her name

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

Last month, I made an enemy. I do not say this lightly, and I certainly don’t say it with pride, as a more aggressive male might. Throughout my life I have avoided confrontation with a scrupulousness that an unkind observer would call out-and-out cowardice. A waiter could bring the wrong order, cold and crawling with maggots, and in response to “How is everything?” I’d still manage a grin and a “lovely, thanks”.

On the Underground, I’m so wary of being a bad citizen that I often give up my seat to people who aren’t pregnant, aren’t significantly older than me, and in some cases are far better equipped to stand than I am. If there’s one thing I am not, it’s any sort of provocateur. And yet now this: a feud.

And I don’t even know my enemy’s name.

She was on a bike when I accidentally entered her life. I was pushing a buggy and I wandered – rashly, in her view – into her path. There’s little doubt that I was to blame: walking on the road while in charge of a minor is not something encouraged by the Highway Code. In my defence, it was a quiet, suburban street; the cyclist was the only vehicle of any kind; and I was half a street’s length away from physically colliding with her. It was the misjudgment of a sleep-deprived parent rather than an act of malice.

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

I was stung by what someone on The Apprentice might refer to as her negative feedback, and walked on with a redoubled sense of the parental inadequacy that is my default state even at the best of times.

A sad little incident, but a one-off, you would think. Only a week later, though, I was walking in a different part of town, this time without the toddler and engrossed in my phone. Again, I accept my culpability in crossing the road without paying due attention; again, I have to point out that it was only a “close shave” in the sense that meteorites are sometimes reported to have “narrowly missed crashing into the Earth” by 50,000 miles. It might have merited, at worst, a reproving ting of the bell. Instead came a familiar voice. “IT’S YOU AGAIN!” she yelled, wrathfully.

This time the shock brought a retort out of me, probably the harshest thing I have ever shouted at a stranger: “WHY ARE YOU SO UNPLEASANT?”

None of this is X-rated stuff, but it adds up to what I can only call a vendetta – something I never expected to pick up on the way to Waitrose. So I am writing this, as much as anything, in the spirit of rapprochement. I really believe that our third meeting, whenever it comes, can be a much happier affair. People can change. Who knows: maybe I’ll even be walking on the pavement

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood