Friday, 29 February 2008


That's where I was last weekend.Yep, it's where people from the North West of England go to die, but I'm not there yet by quite a few years. It's a surprisingly good place for a party conference too though - who knew?!

Some people don't like conferences. I love conferences. Love them. I like being in the room where a rousing speech is being made instead of watching it later on youtube. I like being taken seriously when I ask questions at fringe events - it makes me feel almost like a grown-up! I *really* like staying out, ummmm, "networking" with other Lib Dems from across the country until 3am. I like being accused of being a bad influence. I like feeling that network of support in close-up (though obviously not TOO close-up), and knowing that if I need help with anything, there are people there who go above and beyond the call of duty to provide it - here's where I publicly make a big point of saying thank you once again to Peter Black for driving me up and down the country just so I could attend and asking for nothing in return.

There is one tiny problem. Welsh Liberal Democrat conferences are the best place to practise my public speaking, in that it is best if I'm going to change my podium style from deeply uncomfortable, skittish bag of nerves into confident, inspiring young community leader with all the pitfalls that lie along the way exposed for all to see, it had best be among friends. But that is like saying that if you're going to have excruciating pain inflicted on you, it's best to have it done at a nice clean, fragrant dentistry practice. I find it just that appealing. And it's not even comfortable admitting it in writing - I mean, Fear Of Public Speaking - it's just such a cliché! Might as well be scared of heights and have done with it - oh yes, I am that, too. Just call me a walking cliché then I guess. Or a waffling cliché maybe. Anyway.

Last time I did any public speaking, it was with five minutes' notice because I hadn't read the agenda properly, hadn't realised that my dear colleague from North Pembs, Liz Campion, wanted speakers in support of her first conference motion calling for a review of health service provision in Wales, and felt duty bound to oblige despite having nothing prepared and despite it knocking me sick to even think about attempting it. This time, I once again spoke about local health service provision (condemning the merger of Pembrokeshire and Derwen health trust with two others), once again had only the five minutes between handing in my speakers' card and getting on stage to think about what the heck I was going to say, but there was one difference - I had spent the morning receiving specialist coaching on my public speaking skills from someone with a lot of authority on the matter (at the risk of being accused of constant namedropping, I do mean Lembit Opik). And even if I did moan afterwards until all my friends got sick of hearing it and wandered off, I have to admit the whole experience was a lot more palatable. Hurrah! Progress! The lack of preparation is still a concern - much as I know off the top of my head plenty of key facts about Pembrokeshire and exactly what my point of view is, it would be difficult for anyone to take those thoughts and condense them into a tidy three minute speech just 'on the hoof'. But I can work on that very easily, and as I looked around from that podium on Saturday, I saw people paying great attention to me, being engaged and dare I say it convinced by my words. I can see that becoming an addictive feeling if only I can get rid of the violent shaking that follows it.

Now it's time for me to tell you in the most sickeningly sweet and bordering on evangelistic terms what decisions were taken and what my favourite bits were from the conference.

The more time I spend with my party, the more proud I am to be a part of it. The buoyant mood of the conference was infectious and everything I heard about how well our councillors have been running Cardiff, Swansea, Wrexham and Bridgend made me itch to get into a position where I can make more of a difference in Pembrokeshire, even if I am some years of building capacity and support away from taking control (I know - steady, girl). I found the speeches by Nick Clegg, Roger Williams MP and Mike German, our assembly group leader, energising and enthralling. Of course the focus of the conference was on the rapidly-approaching local elections, but there was one more generalised policy motion that stood out over the weekend. I want to share the details: back in May 2007 I seethed with an indignant fury when I received this glib cut-and-paste response to the official petition to Downing Street to lift the ban on gay men donating blood. So you can probably imagine (and I hope you'll share) my delight when conference delegates voted unanimously to campaign on just this issue. There's an article here on UK Gay News with a fuller description of the motion for those who are interested.


Jen said...

I was pleased to see the motion had been passed - would've been nice if they'd told Delga, of course! Though a little disappointed it talked entirely in terms of gay men, while the part of the ban that really marks out how dodgy it is, is the ruling that female partners of men who have sex with men are barred for 12 months, while the men themselves are barred for life. Do they think women just purge the HIV from their systems after a year!?

In any case, it got me my first letter in LDN :)

Steph Ashley said...

Well, I *was* going to prepare a speech on precisely this issue, but I have to admit my fear of public speaking led me to decide to be kind to myself and not do so in the sure and certain knowledge that my dear Welsh Lib Dems would pass the motion with or without my input.

If I had had my act togther I would have notified Delga, too. I guess I thought someone else would have done so already. Am I the only Delga member in Wales or what?

Jen said...

I can think of three others immediately, at least one of whom must have been at Llandudno. A case of Everyone, Someone and No-one :(

By the way, speaking on a subject you are confident the party will back you on is very good practice - the crowd's not hostile. When I was ickler I found LDYS conference a good safe place for learning public speaking but you might be too old to practice on them by now?

Steph Ashley said...

I am indeed. I'm pushing thirty and not a student so bad luck on that score really. However, Welsh conference is a much more manageable affair than federal, so it's not too bad. The crowd's almost never hostile (with the exception of certain people at the special conference on the mooted rainbow coalition last year but that was exceptional!) and like Mike Powell likes to tell me, I'm better off if I'm going to make a mess of speaking, doing it in front of my friends than when it matters speaking against people from other parties...