This morning I walked into the conference hall for the health debate and wondered if I might be in the wrong town – though the 2,000 protesters gave a bit of a clue.
John Healey, Labour’s shadow health spokesman, walked past and plonked himself down in the centre of the hall. It was a curious to see him there. He sat there throughout the hour-long debate on health, then he got up and wandered around the back in what I like to call the classic Mandelson pose. Stand at the back, ensure that plenty of people can see you, look as Svengali-like as you can.
What he saw was a typical Lib Dem debate: open and honest in disagreement, with respect shown on all sides. As Nick Clegg said later in a Q&A, the party remains unique in its ability to debate policy disagreements openly.
There were excellent speeches from GPs, consultants, health workers, councillors and a few too many MPs and peers for my taste, but all sides of the argument were careful and considered. It was a delightful contrast to the ludicrous and outdated bearpit that is the House of Commons.
When Shirley Williams, described by one speaker as a cross between the Queen Mum and Vera Lynn, took to the podium she got a clap simply for being her.
The praise for Paul Burstow was universal but qualified by the outright opposition that many have to GP commissioning. Clearly there are differences of view about what is seen by many at conference as the Andrew Lansley elements of the Health Bill. Conference most definitely wanted to send a message about that, and it is helpfully described and debated by party members on Mark Pack’s blog.
Healey came with a typical “blood up the walls” statement already prepared. Instead, he found a party that is businesslike, considered and professional. Perhaps he can go back to his colleagues and tell them that there are other ways to oppose.