The line that got the most applause at the opening rally of the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow came from Nick Clegg, but it wasn’t about housing or tax or civil liberties or nuclear power. It was about the party itself: ‘People who don’t understand us like to call debate division. I think it is debate that gives us our unity.’ He said that after the Syria vote he’d told David Cameron: ‘It’s not a defeat, it’s just a reference back.’
I hadn’t known what a reference back was before sitting in on the conference policy debates. On Sunday evening, Floella Benjamin, still with the high ponytail of her children’s TV days, asked conference to support Cameron’s plans to require internet providers to filter pornography automatically. After Julia Cambridge spoke to second the motion, delegates lined up to oppose it: current filters are too unsophisticated, blocking sites about breastfeeding, sex education and one Lib Dem’s own blog; children who have grown up with the internet won’t be put off by a filter they can easily find ways around; you can’t deal with something by pretending it doesn’t exist. A delegate behind me, rather older than the ones speaking, called out: ‘Pathetic!’ A young delegate with blue hair talked about discovering her asexuality via fan fiction (the delegate behind me, quieter now, murmured ‘stupid cow’); another spoke about talking to her children while installing a porn filter, which she later abandoned. At the end of the allotted hour, everyone voted by holding the yellow back of their conference pass in the air. The delegate behind me voted for the motion, but nearly everyone else voted against and the policy was referred back to committee. Deferred, not quite defeated.
The next day I looked to see how the papers had written up the debate. Would the nation’s political hacks, assembled restively in a featureless white basement room below the main hall, see it as a Lib Dem repudiation of a Tory policy that has been personally endorsed by Cameron? The rise of the Snowdenites? Feminism’s failure? But there was virtually nothing. Instead, everyone was focusing on a supposed split between Clegg and Vince Cable over economic policy, quoting anonymous aides and sources. Cable had said he probably wouldn’t make it to the next morning’s economy debate, as he would be preparing his keynote speech that would be given afterwards.
The next morning the hall was packed with delegates and press; special advisers standing at the edges, Nick Robinson and Allegra Stratton pacing around at the back. It was the first time I had sat in a full row, and the few seats left were inconveniently in the middle. Cable came to the debate after all, but arrived an hour late. And so, pursued by several TV cameras and even more photographers, he had to edge apologetically past other seated delegates, and listen to the rest of the debate over a near-constant sound of shutter clicks. The policy didn’t get a reference back.