Lib Dems in Birmingham: Don’t mention the referendum

By Alex Stevenson

If there's one topic the Liberal Democrats are determined to avoid talking about at all costs, it's the lost cause of electoral reform.

You might have thought that there would be more than one fringe meeting, for example, on the policy area which the party leader has taken under his wing.

But political and constitutional reform is obviously not of great interest to the Lib Dem party in Birmingham this year. Delegates who have gathered here in the Midlands wince when the topic is mentioned. One party strategist I met said he had helped out with the campaign for six months. Six "long and difficult" months, he added with a shudder. The wounds are still sore.

The leadership does not want to talk about it, for the alternative vote failure is one of the party's biggest disasters of the last 12 months.

Perhaps it is just that there is nothing to say. The issue is effectively dead, for this parliament at least.

Removing the Lib Dems' moaning about first-past-the-post, usually a staple part of any of their conferences, has opened up a vacuum which has been easily filled.

Far more than last year, the corporate world has turned its attentions on the coalition's junior party.

Last year had the novelty of the huge security barriers we're traditionally used to only at Labour and the Tories' gatherings. But there was not the same intensity of lobbying bodies and big businesses that we're seeing this year.

Nick Clegg spends his conference evenings doing the rounds, delighting drinks receptions with a few well-chosen remarks. These are usually preceded by a hopelessly lengthy introduction from this or that group, justified by the fact they are purchasing the wine. They are an opportunity to force the deputy prime minister to listen.

The look on Lib Dems' faces as one businessman highlighted the striking similarities between venture capital and liberal democracy was one of disbelief, horror, disgust, as you'd expect.

Their discomfort with the more unseemly aspects of being in power is palpable.

Nowhere was it more in evidence than yesterday morning, when the party conference passed a motion condemning its security requirements with a healthy majority.

"Conference accepts the need for physical security measures to protect those attending but does not accept that such measures can interfere with the democratic decision-making processes of a political party," the motion stated.

They might have thought otherwise if it had been their party affected by the Brighton bomb, perhaps.

As it is, the motion shows one thing very clearly: that "awkward" spirit of Lib Dems praised by Nick Clegg on Saturday evening burns as brightly as ever.