Sometimes party conference is an escape into a feelgood cocoon, where everyone is a Lib Dem, and politics is about discussing ideas in the warm not pounding the streets in the rain.
Politics is a tough old game and you need that comforting fix, that gathering of the clans, to give you the boost to keep going.
Sometimes it’s too much, literally stifling and you have to get out to get some fresh air.
Today was different. The blast of fresh air from the real world came into the conference hall, courtesy of the leader.
Yes, Nick Clegg rightly attacked the other parties. Did you know that the Labour government pillaged funds for fighting child poverty to cut inheritance tax for the 6% richest? Or that the Government that used to talk about an ethical foreign policy sells arms to 19 of the 20 countries it’s identified as the worst human rights’ abusers?
But he also attacked our own complacency. We’re rightly proud to be the greenest party (greener even than the Greens); but only 1 in 14 people agree with us that climate change is a pressing problem.
Nick struck a chord with me when he said we’ve got to do more than simply say “I told you so” when the tipping point comes. And that means really getting out and listening to people not simply doing a PR pose. Labour’s ‘big conversation’ was an invitation-only stunt, listening to hand-picked fans. The Conservatives are listening to all sorts of people, but doing little in response. Nick’s been out listening for real, no cameras, no agenda.
A couple of months ago, I went for a mid-week meal with my parents, on the edge of London. That same night Nick Clegg was doing a listening meeting at my old school down the road. I only found out when Nick came to Islington the next week and mentioned it in passing. “You should have said, I could have been there” I said. “But that’s not the point,” said Nick. He’s right.
For all the talk about personalised services, both Government and business are getting further away from people. There are straws in the wind; the BBC ‘White’ season; the fight for our post offices; the revolt against overseas call centres; anger over MPs expenses, Heathrow expansion, battery hens, and more. Even the FA Cup is showing the backlash of the underdogs.
When I lost my council seat back in 2006 it hurt like hell, but that didn’t matter; it wasn’t about me. Islington residents didn’t want a Labour council – they’d only just got rid of generations of a dreadful Labour council – but they wanted the Lib Dems to listen. Rival politicians still snigger about election losses; but the residents I talk to don’t care about all that. They want politicians who take time to listen and who remember why they are there. We must never be too busy putting our policies into practice to stop and listen to the people we serve. And we must never simply be there to prop up the Government of the day rather than put our constituents first.
After his election as leader, Nick admitted that he didn’t believe in God. One of my humanist friends at conference teased me yesterday, asking if I thought God believed in Nick Clegg? One of the things that troubles me as a Christian in politics is that so much of politics plays on hate and fear. People don’t actually like the Orwellian minutes of hate that passes for political debate these days. Private Eye rightly mocks the overuse of the word ‘solutions’ but solutions are what we need.
Last year I blogged about what I wanted in a leader. Someone who likes people, who sees people as the solution, not the problem. Nick may not be a believer, but his speech today was full of the values that make me both Christian and liberal.
He talked about beliefs, about striving to do what’s right, about second and third chances, about optimism and empowerment, about sincerity and hope. I’m certain God does believe in Nick Clegg. And so do I.