Today I was in London with 21 (yes, count them, Mr Little, always 21 of them...) students at an A Level Politics Conference. Despite the hard wooden seats it was a good day, and we saw a decent array of politicans.
Caroline Spelman MP - Shadow Communities Secretary - Was nursing a cold and sounded like she did; not a great effort and seemed to stray off the point. Tried to make local government sexy and largely failed. Pity as I think she is usually very good at this sort of event; nearly the youngest speaker and didn't really connect.
Tony Benn - Former Labour cabinet minister - Always good value and the most engaging of the speakers. However he does always remind me of why I vote Conservative. Apparently the world economic slump is dealt with by taxing the rich and building council houses. Also, when questioned directly by the students about interventionism and when it works and doesn't, he failed to answer the question. Got a rousing cheer; couple of good jokes especially about being pleased to recieve a death threat because he knew he could still worry and irritate people. Benn is living more and more on his reputation I would say.
Don Foster MP - LibDem Culture Spokesman - Don was the surprise of the day for me. He was very articulate and answered the questions directly and honestly. However, he did blow a few radical student dogwhistles; plenty of stuff about Iraq and civil liberties to get them clapping. However he spoke in a very accessible way and came across as being very decent.
Alan Duncan MP - Conservative Shadow Leader of the House of Commons - The absolute star of the day; though mainly with good quips and a fantastic Tony Blair impression! He was entertaining and the only one who stuck to the A-Level script about the role of parliament. Best bit was during the questions; when a middle aged Politics teacher got up to challenge him about Thatcher's "dismantling of the welfare state", Duncan replied quick as a shot - "What nonsense and if this is the kind of thing you are teaching then heaven help us." Cue clapping.
Simon Hughes MP - they said he was LibDem President but I am fairly sure he isn't - seemed to have put on a great deal of wait. Spent ages talking about people who knew that had died and films he had seen. Oddest speech of all. Then went on to say that the LibDems got 25% at the last election (not true) and were on the verge of power. Students were actually laughing when he talked of a LibDem government. Very partisan speech and over shadowed by Foster.
Chris Bryany MP - Deputy Leader of the House of Commons - wanted to avoid all mention of his government so spoke for 20 minutes about how he became a Labour MP and the journey he took. It was very interesting - and also very emotional - especially regarding his sexuality and growing up living in Franco's Spain and then in South America. However, he good a rougher ride from the questions but stood up well and earned some respect for that. Came out as good as a government minister could.
Frank Dobson MP - Former Labour Health Secretary & London Mayoral Candidate - joined the other lefties in worrying about the rise of the far right. Did some good old fashioned banker-bashing and, to be fair, some government-bashing too - although he said the government was not really to blame for the economy. He got rugby tackled by a lady about now being able to get on the housing market - but Frank told her to rent instead! This caused some gulps around the room; I think people want to own their own home, so Frank's idea that we all rent went down badly.
So all-in-all some very interesting stuff; the LibDems were the most political of the speakers. I was concerned that 2 of the 3 Labour speakers were "formers" and thus didn't have to defend the government. The left were very pre-occupied with the rise of the far-right and all mentioned the BNP - a genuine concern or, again, student dogwhistle politics? But most of all, the re-occurring themes, through speeches and questions, were foreign affairs, civil liberties and jobs/economy - plus a few on education. Nothing on crime or the NHS. What does this tell us about the future domestic political agenda?