Making Friends with Lib Dems, their Fans and their Haters at their Brighton Conference
Ah, the last Liberal Democrats convention – I remember it well. It took place in Newcastle about six months ago, after years of hard work and leftist posturing had nearly made them genuine contenders in the Labour heartland. All of that work was in the process of being destroyed by Nick Clegg’s relentless rimming of David Cameron, a man to whom the suffering of the post-industrial North is just something comedians with funny accents use as a reason to act all chippy on Mock the Week. As you can imagine, that party didn't go very well.
This time around, however, they cunningly avoided drawing any political/geographical comparisons by travelling to Brighton for the weekend; a city in which they had never been popular in the first place.
I got off the train and headed to the un-welcoming party that was thrown in the Lib Dems’ honour. Protesters had gathered in a car park next to a funfair, quite appropriately, to shout angry things at the yellow Tories for being part of a government under which life in Britain is neither fun nor fair.
The pre-conference hype has mostly been centered around the apology Nick Clegg made the other day for promising not to raise tuition fees, before doing exactly that, as well as the Youtube spoofery that followed it. I wanted to get inside the minds of the people who were upset with this act of unconvincing political harikiri, so the first thing I did was grab some at random for a chat.
VICE: What did you make of the apology?
Aleeya, student, 20: I’m actually here because of the apology video. I just couldn’t believe the audacity of it. I don’t understand how he can think people are that stupid.
So, do you think he should apologise for the apology?
Erm, no. But I think it would have been better for him not to have said anything, or at least to have done it in a way that wasn’t so blatantly an attempt to get votes. It wasn’t, “Sorry for completely betraying everything that the party is about... ever,” just, “Sorry for this one little thing that I know has annoyed a lot of people.” All because the students were such a big voting bloc for them.
Did you vote Lib Dem?
Do you feel like maybe you should apologise?
I think you should.
VICE: Hi there, protester. Didn’t you hear Nick Clegg’s apology the other day?
Peter Day, works for HMRC, 52: I did.
So what are you doing here then?
It’s not enough. The Lib Dems are acting as accessories to one of the nastiest governments we’ve ever seen.
Would you be satisfied if Nick Clegg was even more apologetic?
It’s gesture politics. A politician says something to court popularity – shock horror! It’s not enough.
What if he was like, “Look, I seriously am really, really sorry. Seriously, you guys.” How about then?
What, a politician being genuinely sincere? That would go down in history. That man sold his principles years ago. I wouldn’t trust a word that comes out of his mouth.
Even if he got down on his knees?
Even if he got down on his knees.
Paddy, 30, hospital worker (left) and Stacey, 26, council worker.
VICE: Do you welcome the Lib Dems to Brighton?
Paddy: They’re implementing Tory cuts.
But Nick Clegg said he's sorry, so it’s fine, right?
Stacey: Yeah, “Sorry for destroying the lives of children.”
What should the Lib Dems do to show that they really are sorry, then?
Stacey: Dissolve themselves.
What, like, in a vat of acid?
Paddy: I wouldn’t even vote for a dead Nick Clegg.
The march began and the man on the loud speaker – presumably unable to handle the pressure of leading the chanting – started shouting simply, “Nick Clegg! Nick Clegg!”, making the protest look like an evangelical bloc of militant Lib Dems.
The protest wended its way down the conference centre next to a massive Oceana, which I assume is where the Lib Dems went for their post-conference lash. The Lib Dems were jeered at a bit and a few short speeches were made, before it was announced that there was going to be some direct action against workfare – a coalition government policy, whereby people have to work in menial jobs in order to get their benefits, meaning that, in effect, they’re paid at the rate of approximately a button, two peanuts and some chicken-feed per hour.
One of the protesters said that the action was going to get “very rioty” and I immediately felt concerned about this one girl-protester pictured above. Surely roller skates in a riot must be the political equivalent of flip-flops in a circle-pit?
I apologise on behalf of Brighton's demonstrators, riot fans, but it wasn’t very rioty at all. The protesters split into three teams. Two headed to different branches of Poundland and another went to Primark – companies that enslave hapless NEETs and make them stack shelves for dole. I followed a group who were going to Poundland in the hope that, once the demo was over, I could pick up some big Toblerones and multi-packs of Lucozade. Something I was able to do in the midst of the protest, as this basically involved standing in front of the shop, holding banners, handing out leaflets and shouting on a megaphone.
It wasn’t exactly Millbank, but it was, nevertheless, more than this guy was willing to put up with. He started telling the protesters to get a job and that he was a “working class hero” because he’s never been on the dole and doesn’t “spunk off the government”. “Everyone who signs onto the giro is scum,” he said. A demonstrator holding a microphone gave him short shrift, yelling, “You’re such a knob it’s unbelievable.”
Back on the seafront, an anti-nuclear protester was holding a protest of his own, pissing off the delegates with his weird noise maker:
I braved the racket and picked the brains of some Lib Dems.
Nick Stanton, Community engagement person and Lib Dem Councillor, 46.
VICE: Did you see the protest against you?
I’ve read about it. I haven’t seen or heard any evidence of it.
What, 200 Socialist Workers with placards?
Pretty much, yeah. Do you think they’re emblematic of wider anger at the Lib Dems?
I think Socialist Workers are professionally angry people. I would be very upset if there was a party conference and the SWP weren’t outside with placards being angry. There would be something wrong with the body politic.
Connor MacKenzie, 17, Liberal Youth member.
VICE: A young Lib Dem like you must be something of a rarity.
No, as much as the press likes to think, we’re not actually doing that badly. Membership did go down after the tuition fees scandal, but it’s going back up now. Fresher’s Week is going on at the moment and people are completely happy with us. We’re getting a lot more members this year. We’re getting really good responses – the tuition fees blip isn’t coming up at all.
I guess if you’re using freshers – who manifestly can still afford to go to university – to gauge young peoples’ anger about how expensive university is, then yes, people are pretty OK about it. Do you think Nick Clegg’s pledge not to make pledges that he can’t keep will be kept?
I think it’s something he’ll learn from, and that we can trust him in the future.
Are people really “completely happy” with the Lib Dems? A recent poll suggested that even they hate Nick Clegg. Was Connor a loyal party drone living in denial or a media-savvy politico putting on a charade, wise to the machinations of a grizzled, old Westminster hack, such as myself?
With this in mind, I decided to have some unpretentious real-talk with the average sea-side punter.
Hugh, 42, works at American Express.
VICE: What do you think of the Lib Dems?
This sounds really pessimistic, but I don’t know the difference. When the Labour Party had their conference here, I worked in the centre at the time and I couldn’t see a difference between all the people I was working for and what I assume the Conservatives are like.
Have you heard about the apology Nick Clegg made?
Yeah, we were talking about the remix on the beach. Some people were wondering whether it’s something the Lib Dems put together themselves for self-promotion.
That would have been pretty cunning. Do you reckon politicians should remix their speeches more often to engage with people?
You’ve gotta find other ways of doing it, so yeah, that would be one way.
Andrea (right), age withheld, works in a school.
VICE: Do you think the apology remixes were a cunning ploy by the Lib Dems to get peoples’ attention?
They were hugely funny, but I don’t think they have the creativity and the flair to do so. They all tell lies. Do you expect any of them to be honest? Do you expect any of them to have any integrity? None of them have.
Geoffrey Brookins, 41, blogger.
VICE: What do you make of the Lib Dems?
Certain elements have been doing a very good job with the Conservatives. I’ve been very impressed with David Laws since he’s come back, and extremely impressed with Danny Alexander as well. But there are a number of people who are letting us down. I don’t like the idea of texts between Vince Cable and Ed Miliband and contacts between the Labour Party and Tim Farron. Let’s wait until the result of the next election. We’ve got the first hung parliament we’ve had in donkey’s years and it’s unlikely to happen again. As far as I’m concerned, this is a one-off government that’s been put together for the sake of saving the country from financial turmoil.
What did you make of Nick Clegg’s apology?
I think he was right to do so and I think he was absolutely right to have second thoughts on the tuition fees policy. I think if he had come out before the general election and said, “Look, we’ve had a re-think on this because of the state of the financial situation,” then he would have got a lot of respect, but he probably would have lost seats like Bristol West and maybe even Portsmouth South, because the vote there was predominantly students. I think he stuck to the policy to get the student vote. That’s probably going to collapse next time, but I don’t think the student vote is going to be as effective as it has been previously.
What do you make of their prospects for the next election?
I think that, come the next general election, you’ll probably be able to get all the Lib Dems into a minicab.
With that, I headed to the beach. The day was nice but the cold piercing, so, aided by the sound of the waves splashing on the shore, I was able to reflect that the guy in the unfortunate blue underwear has bigger balls than Nick Clegg in a cabinet meeting.
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