With many journalists and lobbyists attending the Liberal Democrat conference
for the first time, Simon Titley provides a handy guide to the different species
they can encounter
The Liberal Democrats provide a rich and diverse fauna, with much to reward
the patient observer. The autumn party conference is a good time to watch most
species, as they gather to take advantage of the free food and drink before the
onset of winter.
But you’ll need to get out and about if you want to observe every variety of Lib
Dem. Sitting in the press office reading their press releases is no substitute
for the real thing. The conference auditorium is equally unrewarding; you’re
likely to find only one or two species hibernating.
The keen observer at conference will find richer pickings in the exhibition
area, fringe meetings and hotel bars. Novice watchers needn’t worry about
investing in any special equipment or disguise. Normal clothing will usually
suffice, unless you’re in Blackpool.
It’s tempting to get closer to individual Lib Dems by offering them an interview
or a drink. In experienced hands, these tactics can yield more intimate
observations but the novice watcher may unwittingly find himself with a new
friend who is hard to shake off.
Armed with this field guide, however, you can have a rewarding time watching the
Lib Dems in their natural habitat. Happy hunting!
Characteristics: The collective noun is a ‘leaflet delivery cult’. Usually
observed in large flocks, especially at by-elections. This species is something
of an evolutionary vestige, since its intensive leafleting activity once served
a clear purpose but is now a meaningless ritual.
Plumage: Generally windswept appearance, with waterproofs and a large shoulder
bag. Older specimens may show scars from letterbox wounds.
Habitat: Local by-elections. At other times, can often be found clustered round
the nearest Risograph printer. This species is not immediately evident at
conference, where it tends to be hidden away in back-to-back ALDC training
Diet: Weak tea drunk from a Styrofoam cup in the back of a committee room.
Likes: Discussing the minutiae of Risograph printers and the layout of Focus
Dislikes: Temperamental letterboxes and temperamental Risograph printers.
THE NAÏVE LOYALIST
Characteristics: Easily recognised by a rictus grin and lack of critical
faculties, the Naïve Loyalist has a strong herd instinct and follows the party
leadership wherever it goes. Although this species appears friendly, it should
be treated with caution. There is always a risk that the relentless enthusiasm
could collapse at any moment following a sudden realisation of the futility of
Plumage: Bright yellow party tat, such as ‘bird of liberty’ sweatshirts.
Habitat: The front rows of the auditorium. The stall that sells bright yellow
Diet: Swallows anything the leadership offers.
Likes: The female of the species harbours secret sexual fantasies about Nick
Clegg. As indeed do some of the males.
Dislikes: Media that subject the party to any sort of scrutiny or criticism; you
may hear the distress call, “Why don’t they report our policies?”
THE FIRST-TIME DELEGATE
Characteristics: Not in fact a separate species but the larval form of many
other species. It dutifully attends every debate and fills every interval with
fringe meetings, under the misapprehension that these activities are compulsory.
Pupates only when the cynicism finally kicks in.
Plumage: Favours inconspicuous styles of dress at first, but the camouflage
gradually wears off during conference due to a tendency to accept every sticker
and lapel badge on offer.
Habitat: In daylight hours, populates most of the seats in the conference
auditorium. After dark, can be found in a succession of fringe meetings, the
worthier the topic the better.
Diet: The free sandwiches at fringe meetings.
Likes: Seeing the politicians in real life they’ve only ever previously seen on Newsnight. Guiltily collecting lots of free biros from the stalls (“They’re not
for me, they’re for my nephew.”).
Dislikes: That gnawing feeling that the real action must be going on somewhere
THE BUSY COUNCILLOR
Characteristics: This busy bee is always on the go. Council meetings by day,
canvassing and casework by night, then more meetings at the LGA, the school
governing board, various quangos, you name it. There’s no time for career or
family. It’s no wonder this species has a short lifespan and burns out after a
Plumage: The scruffy casual wear has given way to more formal power dressing,
now that the job of councillor is being gradually professionalised and the
allowances are more generous.
Habitat: Meetings. Meetings. And more meetings. At conference, the busy
councillor will have arrived with a full schedule, to ensure the pace never lets
Diet: Meeting room biscuits.
Likes: Unpaid social work.
Dislikes: An existential fear of what might happen if the merry-go-round
THE PARLIAMENTARY CANDIDATE
Characteristics: The breeding cycle of this species means that large numbers
exist in the run-up to a general election but few afterwards, so there are not
many specimens observable. The few survivors are known as POPOs (pissed on and
passed over). Candidates are nevertheless easy to spot, since they are mostly
white males. The complete redrawing of constituency boundaries means we are
unlikely to see a regeneration of this species for a while yet.
Plumage: Chameleon-like; they dress formally during the day to impress the media
and dress down in the evening to show they’re still one of the lads.
Habitat: Early in the electoral cycle, the species is free-ranging and can be
observed in a variety of conference habitats. As the election approaches,
candidates (who have never been a wild species) are increasingly caged by their
minders, kept isolated and confined to stage-managed settings.
Diet: Sour grapes and their own bitter tears.
Likes: Being rude about the Cowley Street Campaigns Department.
Dislikes: The Cowley Street Campaigns Department.
THE ’70s RADICAL
Characteristics: This veteran of the Young Liberals is now a grizzled local
councillor of many years’ standing. Has experienced more Liberal Revivals than
you’ve had hot dinners. Is now appropriately cynical in the face of anything
that looks like unwarranted optimism.
Plumage: Casual wear and hairstyles that haven’t changed since the Croydon
Habitat: In daylight hours, can be found hanging around the Liberator stall.
After dark, takes refuge in the hotel bar.
Diet: Real ale. En masse, can drink a hotel bar dry by the second night of
conference. The only solids taken are the free mints handed out by exhibitors.
Likes: Reminiscing about various conferences in the 1970s while praying that the
photos taken by Richard Younger-Ross never resurface.
Dislikes: The soul-destroying disappointment that eventually arrives with every
party leader since Jeremy Thorpe.
Characteristics: LINOs (‘Liberals In Name Only’) are a self-important group of
right-wing plotters that can usually be found flocking around whoever is party
leader. Metamorphoses at roughly ten-year intervals. In the 1980s, they were
social democratic and strongly pro-merger; in the 1990s, Blairite and strongly
pro-‘The Project’; in the 2000s, neoliberal and pro-Orange Book. Currently
staring into their Blackberries trying to work out what to do next.
Plumage: Suits (literally and metaphorically).
Habitat: The Westminster Bubble. Secret meetings and dinners.
Diet: Expensive food but cheap drinks (lager or diet coke).
Likes: Generally pontificating and idly deciding other people’s fate without
doing any work themselves. Lecturing other people about the realities of power,
even though none of them has won so much as a parish council seat.
Dislikes: The party’s grassroots members.
THE RIGHT-WING LIBERTARIAN
Characteristics: The libertarian is best defined as a classical liberal who
still lives with his mum. The species makes a raucous noise that creates a false
impression of large numbers, but few actually exist. They infest political
cyberspace, where they mainly troll on other people’s blogs, saying the sort of
things they would never dare say to anyone’s face.
Plumage: In cyberspace, a multiplicity of pseudonyms. In real life, T-shirts
given away at IT conventions, which advertise violent computer games.
Habitat: Cyberspace, 24 hours a day. You might spot one at conference, lurking
in the cybercafé, but they’re more likely to be in the bedroom at home,
following the conference online.
Diet: Pop Tarts, Pot Noodles or anything their mum has left in the freezer that
can be microwaved.
Likes: Goading the grown-ups. Arguing about how many angels can dance on a
Dislikes: Any form of real social contact or moral obligation to other people.
THE OLD SOG
Characteristics: The former SDP member almost became extinct twenty years ago
but has been nurtured by the Liberal Democrats and now thrives in its new
Plumage: The female of the species favours the sort of power dressing that went
out with Joan Collins. The male wears a crumpled suit and still wishes he went
out with Joan Collins.
Habitat: The House of Lords provides the ideal climate. Can sometimes be seen in
less formal Liberal Democrat habitats, where they are easily spotted by their
demeanour, which resembles the strained camaraderie of a wartime aristocrat
forced to share an air raid shelter with the servants.
Diet: Fine dining. It’s what Woy would have wanted.
Likes: Since the Orange Book came out, has realised the Liberal left isn’t so
bad after all.
Dislikes: The lingering sense of bewilderment why the mould never broke when it
was meant to.
Simon Titley is a member of the Liberator Collective
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