by IAN WALLER
THE annual round of party conferences is here again and with it, for political journalists, a series of unenviable treks to seaside resorts to listen endlessly for hours to a mixture of nonsense. worthy sentiments and, occasionally, wisdom or pronouncements of real political significance.
The most important this year will, of course, be. the Conservatives next week where—or so it is said—the first hints will emerge of the great thoughts that have been going on in Whitehall for the past hundred days about how to implement the promises that the Conservatives somewhat unexpectedly for most of them — suddenly found themselves having to implement.
For Labour — meeting this week at Blackpool — and the Liberals who held their (1 was about to say Jamboree but wake might be a more appropriate word) at Eastbourne last week their gatherings were more of an inquest than a rally—although. writing as I am on the opening day of the Labour conference, it must be said that the party is in better heart than might have been expected. This, however, may be no more than the signs of shellshock after their catastrophe last June. However. we will have to wait and see as the week goes on.
But let me first take the Liberals. It was, to say the least, an uninspiring spectacle. If it were not for the fact that they were still regarded as part of the party conference cycle I very much doubt it they could hope to attract an army of political journalists and the earnest attentions of the Robin Days of the TV world. The BBC' deployed — including all the technicians and cameramen —no fewer than 250 people to report this non-event to a breathless world.
The only really intelligent observation I heard in that dismal week came in the very first hour when a couple of delegates suggested scrapping the agenda and spending the time discussing the party's future role. Needless to say it was brushed aside and for three days we had to endure an endless series of earnest speeches on pompous and ponderous resolutions all of which carried with them the implication that not only was the nation deeply interested, but there would soon be a Liberal Government to carry it all out.
No wonder Jeremy Thorpe looked depressed. He has all the trappings of power but none of the realities. He is a Privy Councillor, he is called by the Speaker immediately after the Leader of the Opposition and commandS all the rights of a Party Leader. But the practical fact is that his flock at Westminster has been cut from thirteen to six and is a deeply divided body David Steel on the Left and Emlyn Hooson on the Right are as far apart as, say, Michael Foot and Enoch Powell. The dream of the early Sixties that we were about to witness a massive Liberal revival is as dead as a doornail and will never again. I believe, be revived.
Of course one can expect the Liberals to pick up a seat or two or even three during the next four years as the Conservative government inevitably becomes unpopular and Ted Heath offends some Tory voters in the process. The faithful will hail it, as after Orpington, as the new dawn: but where will Thorpe he after 1976? Back to square one. I suspect.
Three main themes dominated the Assembly even if often more under the surface than actually expressed in debate. First. the ideological rift—should it be a radical party of the Left, as David Steel argues or, as Mr. Hooson has long believed, a party of the Right, a natural ally for the Conservatives?
Be is convinced the Liberals are now paying the price for the Grimond-Thorpe thesis that the Conservatives are the party's natural enemy and that, as Grimond formally proposed after 1964, that there could be a Lib-Lab deal.
Secondly, there was the criticism of Mr. Thorpe's leadership and, in particular, for the way he so eagerly embraced the "Red Guards" into the Young Liberal movement several years ago at the Brighton Assembly; this criticism came particularly from defeated Liberal candidates such as Dr. Winstanley, the former MP for Cheadle, who found himself been smeared by the excesses of the Young Liberals.
It is hard to imagine a less likely revolutionary than Dr Winstanley but he is con vinced that the guilt by association frightened away the respectable and the elderly— particularly against the background of the opinion poll forecasts of a sweeping Labour victory.
Finally and most interesting, there were the Young Liberals themselves: longhaired and espousing all the stock revolutionary cliches, talking a great deal of nonsense that, twenty years ago, would have never got any further than a college common room.
Some of them arc undoubtedly Trotskyite trouble makers — emigres from the Young Socialist movement— to the profound relief of Transport House which has battled with them for years; some are foolish with all the impetuousness of youth.
But there is a very real streak of idealism and compassion; they care deeply about things that we all say worry us but do not always do enough about: homelessness, racialism, bad education, family poverty, the contrast between the affluent societies of the West and the starvation that so much of the rest of the world endures.
There is a further point too. They are profoundly disillusioned about the ability of conventional party politics— "the system" as they call it— to "do anything meaningful. They want direct action or, the latest phrase, community action. to do it.
They see in the success of Des Wilson's Shelter cam paign focusing attention on the homeless or. more significantly, Peter Hain's success in stopping the South Africa test tour, as examples of how really to get results.
This disillusionment with "the system" cannot just be dismissed as the impatience of youth for the reality is that there is a very real cynicism among all ages and classes with politics and politicians. The Young Liberals may be expressing it in an extreme form but no more than that.
If there is to be a role for the Liberal party in the future then it must be the catalyst in the body politic, expressing the grievances and injustice that exists in society and breaking the monolithic hold of the Establishment. whether it be Conservative, Labour or a combination of both.
They have a parliamentary base—and just think what say the Irishmen or the Red Clydesiders did with that half a century ago; they have a national organisation and they have a lot of very dedicated people behind them.
But to get anywhere they would have to be ready to shed a fair hit of their two million vote — the poujadist element that makes up a lot of it; they would have to give up all the pompous and boring pretensions at party assemblies and at Westminster and recognise that they will never hold power in Britain.
Having come to terms with reality they then might exercise real influence and help to break the monolithic hold of the two major parties. It is, of course, "a might." But what seems to me certain is that there is no conceivable future for a Liberal Party that wants to be part of "the system" and, like John Pardoe, M.P., still seriously believe that the party's target should be to fight all 630 seats at the next election.
A repetition of this year's nonsense at Eastbourne will guarantee only ridicule. Unfortunately Jeremy Thorpe showed not the slightest understanding of the problem, still less how to solve it. He prefers, I suspect, the trappings to the realities.