Thursday, 11 October 2012

The Conference Season - and the Wurzel Gummidge moment

Over the years my time at the Lib Dem party conference has taken many different forms. 

I remember my first conference - in Brighton - as a day visitor. I knew no-one (other than from the virtual reality world of something called cix) but I soon made friends and really didn't want to go home! 

Needless to say I booked up for the next conference as soon as I could. I was determined to stay the whole week and determined to make my first conference speech. I was lucky and was called on the first card I submitted but it may have helped that I opted to speak in the graveyard slot on Thursday morning (after the Glee club which is like a very, very, boozy Scout/Guide campfire - but without the fire). Oh, and I also found a way of speaking against a motion which was obviously going to find widespread support. I shamelessly followed all the advice about getting called to speak and spoke against a motion saying that contraceptives should continue to be free. My main point was to point out all the anomalies in the existing prescription system and to call for a complete overhaul so my first speech brought together my worlds of pharmacy and politics. 

This was 1997. At the time I was the Town Mayor and had escaped to conference for a couple of days away from the strange political nomansland that Mayors inhabit. Who would notice?

I drove home in a hurry as I had to go shopping for a twinning present as I was off to Battenberg the next day. I vaguely registered the newstand posters proclaiming "Mayor in sex tax row" but assumed it was something to do with the Borough Mayor. I went into our lovely Abbey to buy a suitable twinning gift and the two lovely ladies who helped me choose told me how much they had agreed with what I had said. I smiled and nodded benignly because those who have attended a political party conference will realise that by the end of it most delegates need sleep and a detox. I didn't fully understand that my little speech had become news until I arrived home to find a slightly worried looking son(about 11 at the time) saying, "Don't worry mum - it's only about the pill!'

It was my first big lesson in politics. You should always assume that everything you utter could quickly become public. 

In subsequent years I made more friends and accessed a lot of training to develop my skills as a potential candidate but it was some time before I became confident enough to take the step of trying to become an approved candidate. 

My most surreal conference was in Spring 2000. I went to the conference knowing that I was the candidate in the Romsey by-election, following the sad death of Michael Colvin in a house fire. By some bizarre coincidence we had been in the middle of the selection procedure (for the 2001 election) when the tragedy happened but for obvious reasons had not been able to announce the result. At this conference I was granted a glimpse of things to come - of a world where I would be on show and my time would not be my own. 

In the summer of 2000 I attended my first conference as a Member of Parliament and a member of the Lib Dem health team. I did not know what had hit me because, as the new kid on the block, I was in demand. The day then started with breakfast meetings, followed by parliamentary briefings, speaking in fringes (often 2 or 3 in one slot), whips for crucial conference votes, platform speeches and meetings, meetings, meetings. It was also the first time I had seen many of the by election helpers again so by the end of the conference I was almost hoarse and can vaguely remember screeching my way through "Losing Deposits" with JAckie Ballard at the Glee Club. 

Conferences in my 10 years as an MP were always busy and I was nearly always hoarse by the end but the real low point was when I had the "Women" brief and the party debated its selection procedures for Europe. I won't bore people with the details but, for me, it was the most depressing conference ever and by the end of it I felt I had found out who my friends were. 

The first conference after the 2010 election was truly horrible and the only saving grace was that it was in Liverpool. I only stayed for a couple of days because my mum had just died - but maybe that gave me the excuse to slope away. There were lots of hugs and commiserations and it was a chance to catch up with old friends but at this stage I decided to stand for election to a couple of the party committees. 

I was elected to the Federal Conference Committee and this gave the next few conferences a completely different dimension. Suddenly I was in a world of agenda setting, help desks, Ministerial surgeries and learning how to chair conference debates which is rather more complex than you might think as you soon learn that Lib Dems love their standing orders and you have to try and be one step ahead. I have also been very keen to make sure that we debate the hot issues of the day (such as the Health and Social Care Bill) and not sweep them under the carpet. I've really enjoyed the last few conferences though as there has been work to do but I haven't ended up completely shattered and without a voice. 

Now we get to the pharmacy bit (if any pharmacists have lasted this far). At this year's conference in Brighton I had been asked to speak at two fringe events on behalf of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (I'm an English Pharmacy Board member). I had previously spoken at similar events in my role as a member of the Lib Dem Health Team. 

There were two fringes. The first was public health on trial - shared with the gastroenterologists and the opticians and we had to defend ourselves against the accusation that we had failed to deliver public health. There was also a speaker from local government, which is very appropriate as local government will play a big part in the commissioning of health services. I was pleased with the outcome as the audience decided that the health professionals were not guilty of not delivering and I have to say that the political audience did somewhat realise that the problems lay with the lack of funding and foresight displayed by politicians. The high spot for me was when Baroness Jolly said that pharmacists could hold their heads up high when it came to delivering on public health. 

The second debate was shared with Baroness Young from Diabetes Uk and Clare Gerada from the Royal College of GPs. It was a fantastically, lively fringe and the room was packed with many people forced to stand. Clare G was typically robust but there was consensus around access to care records and some rather unexpected support from representatives of the Dispensing Doctors Association and a couple of GPs in the audience who wanted to work out how to make more of pharmacists. 

There was a moment in the discussion when I could not make a pharmacy point as the question was not relevant but there was a political point to be made. When you have an answer to a question it is difficult for a politician to be silent but as the point was not overtly party political I felt justified in commenting by telling the audience that in true Gummidge mode I was removing pharmacy head and putting on a politician's head!

The session was ably and robustly chaired by Lord Victor Abedowale who is a member of the National Commissioning Board. I was delighted when he came up to me afterwards and told me that he thought many of my comments had been spot on and it had made him realise that "we need to make better use of pharmacists".

I am still following two slightly different paths although at the moment I only have one head. At a party level I am standing for re-election to the Federal Conference Committee and at another level I am busy responding to many of the people I spoke to at conference and reminding them what pharmacy can do or how pharmacy can work positively with their organisation.  Hopefully, both will be productive.