Do you remember your first party conference?

by Stephen Tall on September 8, 2007

Lib Dem Voice asked the victor of the famous 1962 Orpington by-election, Eric Lubbock (now known as Lord Avebury), what he remembered of his first Liberal Party conference. Here’s what he told us:

It was the Assembly of 1962 in Llandudno, six months after I had been elected that March. Jo Grimond was Leader, and I think Donald Wade might have been Chief Whip, or he might have handed over to Arthur Holt by then. The other MPs were Roddy Bowen, Jeremy Thorpe and Emlyn Hooson, who had been elected at the Montgomeryshire by-election a month or so after me. I moved a resolution on housing policy, based on a policy document which had been produced by a panel I had chaired.

There was a spirit of optimism, and Jo had already begun to transform the Party. Harry Cowie was head of research, Ted Wheeler was Chief Agent, and members felt that we were on an upward trajectory, both in terms of credible policies and success at the polls. For the first time, every by-election was seen as an opportunity, and every local authority was a potential target for local activists. Maybe it has taken a bit longer than we expected, but Llandudno was the turning point when the Liberal comeback began.

What do you remember of your first party conference?

* Lord (Eric) Avebury is the Lib Dems’ sole blogging peer. You can read his eponymous blog here.

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My first was the Liberal Assembly in Scarborough in 1975 – Jeremy Thorpe’s last conference as Leader. There was a general feeling of disappointment as we had failed to make to make progress in the October 1974 general election (the second of that year) despite fielding an almost full slate of candidates for the first time ever.

The Young Liberals had a highly organised presence. There was a YL caucus every evening which decided the line to take on the following day’s motions. A YL daily bulletin was then typed up and run off on a duplicator overnight and handed to delegates on their way in.

I remember there were several major rows that year. The YLs tried to suspend standing orders to allow a representative from the PLO to address the Assembly. When that failed we walked out in protest.

There was a Parliamentary question and answer session and the YLs wanted to know what the MPs were doing to promote gay rights. It was made clear to us in advance that the platform was not going to take any questions on gay rights so one member asked one anyway which caused uproar when the Chief Whip refused to answer on the grounds that it wasn’t the question that was on the card submitted. The Party has come a long way on gay rights since the 1970s!

We also caused some embarrassment to the Party by distributing copies of the infamous SIDS leaflet outside the local army recruiting office. Some peace activists had recently been arrested and charged with the obscure offence of ‘incitement to disaffection’ for distributing SIDS (Some Information for Discontented Soldiers) and we wanted to show our solidarity.

Conference is a lot better organised nowadays and lot larger, but it seems to lack some of the raw political excitement of my early conferences – or maybe it’s just me getting old?

by nigelashton on September 8, 2007 at 1:30 pm. Reply #

My first must have been at the 1967 conference, Blackpool if my failing memory serves. This was the September before I went up to University so I was switching from the National League of Youg Liberals to the Union of Liberal Students and the main business for me was making contacts with the Sussex ULS people at conference, who included then-famous footballer Jimmy Greaves sister and notorious ‘Red Guard’ figure George Kiloh .

It wasn’t conference in those days of course but ‘Assembly’.

I remeber a very dark hall, poky little annexes for fringe activities, and lots of angst about generational differences. Our elders were really scared of us young types…

by Edis Bevan on September 8, 2007 at 2:05 pm. Reply #

The party has indeed come a long way, Nigel, but not all Chief Whips have. I remember a similar clash, though technically it was the MP who was revolting 😉

Half a dozen or so years ago, I put in a question to the Parliamentary Party about Colin Breed, who – in common with one other of our MPs, I think – had voted to retain Section 28. Unlike the other, he was in the Shadow Cabinet at the time, but still decided both to be an illiberal bigot and to break the Manifesto on which he was elected (I know it was in there; I wrote those bits). He’d not done his electors the courtesy of saying he was against that bit when he stood, either. Anyway, never mind deceiving the electors of southern Cornwall, Shadow Cabinet members are entirely party appointments, which means he was speaking for me and the rest of us. And as he regarded my partner and I as second-class citizens who should be directly discriminated against, I didn’t trust him to do so.

I asked a straightforward question along the lines of “Colin Breed voted in favour of retaining Section 28, breaking the whip and the Manifesto. If he’d voted for similarly discriminatory legislation on racial grounds, his career would instantly have been over. It’s over thirty years since Enoch Powell was sacked from even the Tory Shadow Cabinet for making racist remarks. How homophobic does Colin Breed have to be before he gets sacked from ours?” I don’t have the wording to hand, but that was the gist of what I put on the card (and I had no problem getting called).

Then Chief Whip Paul Tyler was very taken aback, and his answer entirely consisted of variants of “I’m an MP, and who do you think you are, young man? You can’t tell us what to do.” Needless to say, he mentioned neither the person nor the issues involved…

by Alex Wilcock on September 8, 2007 at 3:18 pm. Reply #

…hang on a minute. Tony is Jimmy Greaves’ sister?!

by James Graham on September 8, 2007 at 5:59 pm. Reply #

Mind you being an MP when you attend your first conference has a certain class about it. I wonder if anyone has done that since?

by Hywel Morgan on September 8, 2007 at 8:04 pm. Reply #

Like Nigel, Scarborough in 1975 was my first Liberal Assembly. I also remember those late night YL caucus meetings and the accompanying walkouts. The other abiding memory was the civic reception where Claire Brooks discovered that the waitresses were being paid less than the waiters and tried to make a speech about it. When the authorities turned off the microphone she sat down in the middle of the dance floor, rapidly joined by every YL present. Happy days!

by David Spender on September 8, 2007 at 8:07 pm. Reply #

5 – Yes, I remember at 2005’s Autumn conference it was mentioned that one new MP was attending for the first time. I think it was Tim Farron, but could be wrong…

by Richard Huzzey on September 9, 2007 at 10:42 am. Reply #

7 – pretty sure it was John Leech. Farron is a conference addict!

by James Graham on September 9, 2007 at 11:53 am. Reply #

No relation…but my brother got the nickname of Jimmy in the army.

Claire died on Friday evening after about eight years of a mentally degenerative illness. Very sad. But just like her to die on the eve of a conference.

Tony Greaves

by Tony Greaves on March 9, 2008 at 5:54 pm. Reply #

The first Liberal Assembly I attended was in 1961 at Edinburgh. For the first time a vote was held on joining the Common Market, as it was then. As a Free Trader I was one of the five delegates who voted against.

by TimberWolf on March 9, 2008 at 8:35 pm. Reply #

My first conference was Llandudno: it was also Jim Wallace’s first conference iirc. I remember Tony Greaves speaking in the famous fringe meeting the evening before the Alliance vote. I was a teenager at the time, but it is a bit scary to think that the Orpington by-election was much more recent then than Bermondsey is now…

Very sad news about Claire Brookes.

by Peter Welch on March 9, 2008 at 9:15 pm. Reply #

Nigel Ashton, David Spender and I share the same memory. In 1975, I was a Hull University Politics student, so it was easy enough to come up early and spend a few days at the Scarborough Conference. Like Nigel, I can remember Peter Hain and Simon Hebditch marshalling all us YL and ULS members in an attempt to have the PLO representative speak. I remember walking out as well.
Other than that, I had the dubious privledge of being hit by Cyril Smith’s mother with her handbag for saying something unfavourable about him in a fringe meeting!
I went to the Llandudno Conference the following year; and that’s it – 32 years of blissful abstinence!

by Martin Land on March 9, 2008 at 9:32 pm. Reply #

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