Reflections on rugby and the Liberal Democrat conference

The start of the party conference season coincides for me with the start of the rugby union season.

This week in Glasgow with the Liberal Democrats is my 25th autumn party conference and last weekend I started my 10th season playing rugby for Warlingham Rugby Club having taken up the game at the ripe old age of 35. There are, it turns out some intriguing lessons for the political playing field from the battles on the rugby pitch.

Party conferences for the Liberal Democrats have traditionally been like a pre-season training camp. Activists gather in a seaside resort to run through the new drills, learn the new sound bites and to find out about what sort of strip they will be wearing for the new political season. The most heated debate in bar after the first sessions were not about bedroom tax, the economy or fracking but the new 3D beveled party logo and its accompanying strange new font. There was talk of a re-branding action group a hastily constituted and a reference back of the entire conference stage design.

If you really want to find out what is going on in the mind of the party strategists, you need to attend one of the behind closed doors, party members only, training sessions. Each has a different title but each carries exactly the same message. Every single Liberal Democrat speech, interview and leaflet shall contain the words stronger, economy, fairer and society preferably in that order. Party trainers will give you the details of the party’s private polling that underpins the strategy. A leaked poll which says that 75% of the population could not in their wildest dreams imagine voting Lib Dem means that, much to everyone here’s relief, there are 25% who are still “in play”. For older Liberal Democrat activists who are well used to sinking into single figures in the polls, 25% is a straw worth clutching to.

Lib Dems are writing off the extreme right wing fringe that is running to join UKIP. However, the Lib Dems are also losing the “fed up with the lot of you” protest voters, who used to be ripe for harvesting at by elections. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if, at the community singing, beer drinking weirdness that is the Liberal Democrat Conference Glee Club, someone pens a Lib Dem version of the Millwall terraces chant “We are Lib Dems, Single Transferable Vote supporting Lib Dems, No-one likes us, We don’t care.”

My first rugby game last week was a pre-season friendly between my club Warlingham and near neighbours Purley John Fisher. The only problem is that there is no such thing as a friendly between Warlingham and Purley John Fisher. My own nose has been a victim in previous seasons of the bitter rivalry between the two sides. Thanks to the ancient grudge, last weeks game was actually a great match. I was even made Man of the Match. Everyone plays better when there is something at stake, something to fight for.

So it is with political parties. The rivalries between our separate political teams mean that they up their game, getting up at 4am to deliver leaflets and staying out until 2 minutes to 10pm, chasing the last voters out of their house and down to the polling station.

The problem with coalition government that it is a bit like the multi millionaires of Chelsea in blue being forced to play a game against Liverpool in red, whilst giving up three or four places in the starting eleven to players from Blackpool in their bright orange strip. It takes a while for everyone to work out the game plan and the coalition fans have got no idea what songs to sing from the terraces.

The problem for Lib Dems though is that they need to learn to love, and I mean really love, the coalition or they face oblivion at the next election. If voters hate coalition government they will vote Conservative or Labour to make sure that we never have one again. Like it or not a vote for the Lib Dems is a vote for a coalition government. Lib Dems have to sing the praises of the coalition government because no-one else will.

So life is tricky for Liberal Democrats here at Glasgow. Like Warlingham and Purley John fixture, the sport is more entertaining when the rivalries are real. Playing friendlies with the Conservatives or trying to fix up a friendly fixture with Labour after the next election doesn’t bring out the best in the star players. At the conference podium Ministers are attempting the impossible feat of entertaining their own fans on the terraces whilst simultaneously looking over their shoulders and pulling their punches. The Lib Dems are going to need an army of physiotherapists, osteopaths and chiropractors to click them back into shape after this week in Glasgow to get them fit and ready for the political season ahead.

Steven’s book ‘My Life As A Hooker’, about his discovery of rugby union in middle age, was shortlisted in the Rugby Book of the Year category in the 2013 British Sports Book Awards.

Steven represented PLMR on Dod’s ‘Week Ahead’ panel alongside Liberal Democreat Deputy Chief Whip, Alistair Carmichael, Andrew Pierce from the Daily Mail, and Vicky Pryce. A selection of photos from the event can be found below.

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