I do, he's been great to me. And I warn you now though I hope I don't have to, ANY comments along the lines of "yeah it's just because you're a young woman", either online or in person, will take you down like a lead weight in my estimation.
I can be a very stubborn and forthright girl. Some might even say arrogant and belligerent. I find it gets me taken seriously in spite of my age and gender, so I cultivate it. My deep-thinking introverted caring-sharing half is, when occasion demands it, locked in a special box until a nasty situation is dealt with. I find myself in just such a nasty situation about now.
Last week I was very pleased to be included in the Lib Dem Voice Golden Dozen. I was much LESS pleased to find I was sharing places on a list of seven most popular posts, by click-through from the Lib Dem blog aggregator, with no less than THREE posts about Lembit, and none of them particularly positive. In at number one we had a cheap dig from Martin Land. At number two, a rather more sober but still miserable post from Nich Starling, who as I recall hasn't been the only person over the last few months to moan publicly about the fact that media coverage of Lembit's personal life detracts from the party's real messages. And at number three, ironically enough it was a post from Femme de Resistance pointing readers to the latest News of the World story about the man's lovelife. The really sad thing is, this rash of popularly read Lembit blog posts aren't even all related to one specific event -- the buzz about him is constant, ever since I joined the party I've heard enough of it to last me a lifetime in any given month.
Now, call me odd if you like, but it makes me deeply uncomfortable to see someone I'm meant to be on the same side as held up as a subject for a cheap joke, a bitter moan or a point and stare session. In fact, I'd go so far as to say I don't like to see anyone receiving that kind of treatment. I'd go even further: I am exactly the sort of girl who will hear gossip and rumour about a person and rather than take it on board, will go and make a point of scratching the slate clean in her head and making her own decision about the person. I've met some of my best friends that way. I've also come to love Lembit in the handful of occasions I've spoken to him.
It might help you out, if you're wondering why I'd have occasion to get to know him at all if I tell you exactly how and when these meetings occurred. Give you some background. And I hope it will give you a different view of him if you see him through my eyes.
The first time I was in the same place as him was at the very fraught and emotionally charged Special Conference held by the Welsh Liberal Democrats last year (was it only that long ago?) to debate whether or not to go into a rainbow coalition against Labour in the Assembly. That's the thing about being in the Welsh party specifically - it's quite a tight "family" and you'll get to see Lembit, if you're a particular fan, more often than you would elsewhere because of his role in the regional party. I was in fact sitting behind him and a handful of our AMs, keeping my head down as I was very new to the whole situation and more than a little intimidated by the roomful of huge characters I've since come to regard as friends. The only time I spoke inside that room was to dress down the stranger sitting next to me (who if I remember correctly was this gentleman who I must be quick to say has been much more pleasant on every occasion since that I've seen him) whose ire got out of control and led to him leaning forward and verbally attacking Eleanor Burnham to the point where she looked quite shaken... I noticed some of the 'grandees' on the seats in front of me looked round but hardly imagined that they would register who I was or what was happening - there was a lot going on in that room and well, I *thought* I was being fairly subtle. As a brick, as it turned out.
Obviously the circumstances were not the usual ones under which large groups of Lib Dems get together in a hotel, and I didn't have time for chit-chat with anyone as it was straight home to Pembrokeshire afterwards. However, a few months later I found myself quite unexpectedly at the big party conference in Brighton. Federal conference all on my own was a huge experience and worthy of a big flashback blog post all of its own, but the bit I want to concentrate on is the part where I walked into the conference hotel on the second night. Casting my eyes nervously over the room for one of the half dozen people I knew and finding none, buzzing faintly with tiredness and the exhilaration of being at large in a seaside town full of Liberal Democrats, I spied someone beckoning me over and calling to me. Lembit was busy and surrounded by people, but he'd recognised me and wanted to know how I was getting on, expressed that he was pleased to see me there at conference. We had a nice chat. I told him about the fact that I'm terrified of public speaking, and he grinned a big warm grin and told me he knew just how to cure me of that and made me promise to come to his training session on the Tuesday.
I never made it to that training session. It's a long story but suffice it to say here, and let it serve as a warning to any first-time conference goers who may be reading, that conference is incredibly exhausting, and if you try to do everything that looks like you need to join in with, you WILL burn yourself out by the last day and be good for not much. Unless of course you're a better person than me, and my ego doubts that highly. Lembit caught me (I think in the auditorium) later on and said it was fine, and he didn't need any excuses, and not to worry about it.
I don't do starstruck. I'll talk to anyone as I would any other human being. That said, I *do* do respect for boundaries, and I quite understand that the party's parliamentarians and high profile figures may not be able to be as warm with every lowly member as they would like to be, because they are so pressured, so I won't go out of my way to talk to them unless I have something specific I want to talk to them about and don't have someone less busy to talk to about it instead. So it's nice, and really noted, when they make the time to come and find me to chat to me. It doesn't necessarily mean I'm special - it means the person has a way of making everyone feel special. Some of our AMs are really good at that. Lembit is good at it too. Even at last year's Welsh autumn conference, where I only managed to attend for a few hours, and he was insanely busy and surrounded by cameras on account of being accompanied by Gabriela, he made sure he picked me out for a mouthed greeting and friendly eye contact.
Then there was Llandudno this spring. I finally made it to the public speaking training, just nearly six months late! I understand this is a professional calling for Lembit, encouraging and teaching people to be better at presenting themselves and their ideas. In fact I understand he can command hefty fees for doing it professionally should he wish to. But for anyone who hasn't had the pleasure of going to his training, he is really special at it. He makes you laugh, inspires you, and once again, makes you feel special. He not only gave me that bit more confidence I desperately need to speak into a microphone, he found me later in the day to give me specific constructive comments after I had summoned the courage to speak, and we chatted about friends of mine who had been close to his brother - he told me to set up an SAO (for the uninitiated that's an organisation within the party) called Lib Dem Friends of Goths and promised to join when I do it.
Here's the thing: Lembit is really human. And from the limited amount I know, he's also quite vulnerable as humans go. He's been through a lot over the last few years, and never once shirked his responsibilities as a result. He's also really bloody good at his job - I defy anyone not to pay attention when he's speaking, or to pick flaws in the way he handles his portfolios. We can have the tired debate about whether he asks for the negative media coverage when he courts the positive with regard to his private life. We can disagree about whether it is better to have a member of the party making the news in unusual places, connecting with people who are normally switched off by politicians, or whether we would rather have a dry policy-mad suit on our front benches in his place (I wouldn't). But you all know it's indefensible to snipe and gossip about your friends, I hope. And I hope you consider members of the party to be your friends. I do. So please, please, stop with the Lembit bashing, the News of the World devouring, and the moaning. Consider his feelings, or if you can't do that, consider mine and those of anyone else who is personally fond of him.