The awful niceness of Daddy Paddy's army

Suzanne Moore takes the seaside temperature of the Lib Dems - a party ready to do more than think the unthinkable and wear the unwearable

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Before I arrived in Brighton I have to admit I had only two preconceptions about the Liberal Democrats. They are prepared to think the unthinkable and to wear the unwearable.

Beyond that I had only a vague idea of what they were for. Everyone told me that they are a decent bunch, nice people, niceness itself personified in the manly figure of Paddy Ashdown.

On first impressions this was certainly true. Everyone seemed very nice. Party workers do embroidery in between making sure you haven't got a bomb in your bag. They have some super-nice MPs like Simon Hughes and some of their polices are about making the world a nicer place. You can't disagree with niceness but after a while this unremitting niceness gets you down.

They struggle hard not to be so pleasant. Instead, they are desperate to appear honest, straight-talking, full of backbone and resolve. Well, Paddy does, at least. Others spend a lot of time moaning about how they are not going to get into bed with people who would not try and get them into bed in the first place. That must be why they make such an effort not to look attractive.

As so many of us do not know what they stand for, a lot of time is dedicated to definition. Even I cottoned on to the fact that they are not the Labour or the Tory party, but it's a confusing business. The problem with Blair is that he is not a Liberal. The problem with Labour is that it's too Tory. The problem with the Tories is that they are what they say they are, and so must go.

The solution to all this mess is to vote for the Lib Dems, who promise to make a Labour government nicer than it would otherwise be, which is a strange kind of reason for voting.

The Lib Dems are fond of words such as plurality and diversity, insisting that there are in fact five parties: two kinds of Tories and two kinds of Labour. But what of their own diversity?

They certainly attract a lot of people with disabilities but you are not allowed to mention this and everyone gets embarrassed when you do. There didn't seem to be many young people at conference at all. I found some in the bar and asked them if there were any others. Yes, they explained, there were lots of young Lib Dems but they wouldn't be in the hall, they would too busy working at party stuff.

Obviously lots of Lib Dems are too busy to attend conference because the hall was half-empty most of the time. One guy admitted to me that he had missed the leader's speech because he was drying out from the night before. He fell asleep during the lunchtime Neighbours and woke up just as Paddy was finishing.

He should think himself lucky because Paddy didn't really know how to finish. The art of a good speech is surely knowing how and when to end it. Paddy might as well have said "Well, I better be going now...."

At least the debauched Lib Dem didn't have to sit through Ashdown's dire promo that showed Paddy pushing various boats out, taking off his jacket in slow motion, dashing around the country frantically nodding at ordinary people. This is the son of Beyond Westminster - the video of Ashdown's book you didn't buy.

Paddy then spoke eloquently of the scourge of negative campaigning that we have imported from America. Yet that hasn't stopped him going in for dreadful Clintonesque positive campaigning in which he comes on as a cross between a Mills and Boon hero and a manager from one of those "listening" banks.

If you respond to Paddy the patriarch this is all fine. Daddy Ashdown will look after you. If Blair is your older brother who went off to college and became serious and Major is some boring relative that you have to put up with on special occasions, then Daddy Paddy is tremendously reassuring.

Yet, as always, gender is the great unmentionable of party politics. A debate about the scrapping of the Child Support Agency was conducted with no mention of the relations between men and women. But I guess that would be too nasty. I went to several fringe meetings at which all the speakers were male. They don't even bother with the token women palaver like Labour. Yet you can only spread Emma Nicolson and her dazzling array of gold blouses so far.

The "Voices of Women" meeting soon demonstrated how far they have to go in this respect. The chair insisted on addressing members of the audience as "the lady in green" or "that lady over there."

A couple of fabulously bolshie women-of-a-certain-age at the back kept shouting "woman, not lady." Eventually exasperated, one of them stood up and exclaimed "I'm not a lady in red I'm a woman in banana." When the meeting ended, the scattering of men there were thanked profusely.

What for? Being men? Being liberal? The troublesome women at the back started booing and mock praying to them. What kind of Lib Dems were these, I wondered. "No, we're in the Labour Party. We're just here for a look," one of them told me. "What a load of rubbish."

En masse the Lib Dems tend to behave as a pantomime audience, booing and hissing at the mention of certain names - John Birt, The Daily Telegraph, Andrew Neil - and a big boo to anyone who suggests that they are not going to win the election.

Yet it's all very good-natured. I found only one person who talked about seizing power, of radical politics, of people doing it for themselves and he was the man who was too hungover to listen to his leader's speech. Power, though, does seem to be the crux of the matter. Otherwise why bother? Several people explained to me that they didn't actually want to be "in power".

I'm all for redefining what power is and I suppose if you are in this particular party it's important to redefine what winning is. Empowerment is another word that gets bandied about a lot.

This makes good sense if you are a pressure group or involved in extra- parliamentary politics and you believe that politics is too important to be left to politicians. Yet in an arid political landscape the Lib Dems appear to want to have it both ways. Their appeal is that they can be honest and thoughtful because they are not going to govern. But at the same time they have to behave as though they might.

Their extra-parliamentary instinct has to be tempered by a more traditional rationale. The idea that while they sit secure in their own individual identity their leaders are power-broking with the Labour Party upsets them. Indeed, there is a touching kind of innocence about the way they operate. They must have a hard core of anti-spin doctors because while complaining that they don't get enough media coverage they seem unsure of what to do with it once they get it.

Charles Kennedy turning up late for a World at One radio discussion, surrounded by microphones and technicians, exclaimed, "Oh, is this a programme? I see." At the same discussion Vincent Hanna informed the incredulous audience that there were actually two conferences going on, the artificial one in the hall and the real one of press briefings that the media attended. "It is the opposite of open, frank democracy. Don't be naive about it."

Open, frank democracy, now that's something to aspire to. So I went along to a meeting to see if the Lib Dems were the sole guardians of civil liberties. Unfortunately, halfway through the talk, someone knocked on the door and said that they had booked the room. This resulted in some mumbled apologies and everyone trooped out somewhat demoralised. Are these people going to protect our civil liberties when they can't even stand up for our rights to finish a discussion in a stuffy hotel room?

Still, the task of a liberal is to protect the liberties of those you despise. That's what Paul Weller - no, disappointingly, not that Paul Weller - said during the gun debate before he was gunned down, sorry, hissed at. Mind you, he was the sort of liberal who is against seat-belts and crash helmets.

They do some nice individual turns. Alex Carlisle cruising coolly round the hall, Archie Kirkwood coming over all Bob Geldof and appealing for money -"Do it now." Someone got a prize for getting more punters into the party, which made the man behind me very grumpy. "They're bloody breeding up there - that's what they're doing." Everyone else seemed pleased that Paddy had shown his hand on Europe and taxation, that some sort of truth was being told.

Wandering around the stalls though, it was hard to feel excited. They care terribly about animals, voluntary euthanasia and promoting Eastbourne as the next conference venue. Outside a lonely man with another lost cause, Esperanto, handed out leaflets. "Esperanto," they begin helpfully, "is about things (Nouns). Esperanto is about actions (Verbs). Esperanto has words to describe things (Adjectives)".

The Lib Dems are about things and words too, but the action bit seems sadly missing. The third force of British politics may be overwhelmingly decent but feels fundamentally useless. This was brought home to me in the "Take courage for the future" conference directory. In the middle of it is a diary. It reads "Your pullout (if you like) Conference Diary." You either pull the bloody thing out or you don't. It seems very peculiar to me that one has to be instructed to do as you please. But I guess that's what Liberal Democracy is about, if you like.

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