It’s a mere 18 months since the Liberal Democrats last gathered at Birmingham’s shiny International Conference Centre, but the circumstances in which we now meet could scarcely be more different.
Liberal Democrats are still getting used to the novelty of walking around the various conference buildings and bumping into ministers of state. It’ll take us a little while longer until that feels normal.
What has sunk in, though, is that the policy issues we mere members debate and vote on at conference don’t just make it into a manifesto in a few years time any more — they now directly affect the decisions our ministers make when they get back to their departments. This increased influence, combined with the democratic nature of our party, makes Liberal Democrat conference a uniquely powerful force compared to those of the other main parties.
However, while being a party of government brings with it obvious advantages, there are also some downsides. The well-documented issues over conference security and the accreditation process for delegates are particularly pertinent examples, though such a tightening of security was both inevitable and understandable.
Another downside is that our (often rather unedifying) bunfights — an integral but not always welcome part of any Lib Dem gathering — now attract rather more attention than they used to. And this year we didn’t delay, with the increasingly-dominant Social Liberal Forum’s attempt to force a debate and vote on (yet another) NHS motion causing a floor fight and counted vote.
Yet just as tighter security is the price we pay for being in power, such unglamorous arguments are the price we pay for maintaining an internal party democracy — and it’s one that most party members think is worth paying.
The conference rally — which is, in my view at least, the real start of conference — will be getting underway shortly. The Liberal Democrats have been blessed with a disproportionately high number of very funny MPs (Tim Farron and Don Foster are two of my favourites), and tonight it’s the turn of Alistair Carmichael to amuse the gathered crowd.
I’ll be counting just how many times Lembit Opik forms the butt of a joke — though I hear Chris Huhne might have that misfortune this time, too.
Nick Thornsby is a Liberal Democrat member and activist. His own blog can be found here.