Tales from Birmingham

* I WROTE in this week’s New Journal how the Camden branch had proved supremely loyal to the Liberal Democrats and were one of the biggest groups to head to conference last week. In Birmingham, this commitment was rewarded in the best way the party’s leadership knows how. Free drinks in the hotel bar? Nooo – a place on the main stage as leader Nick Clegg gave his grand finale speech on Wednesday. As the yellow arrows indicate above: there were key back-of-the-Clegg-head views for Chris Richards, a former Camden Town candidate whose next challenge is to gatecrash the London Assembly, and the borough’s parliamentary candidates last year Ed Fordham and Jo Shaw. Lucky, lucky. Still, whether the empty bank of seats was a security measure or genuinely vacant chairs, it was slightly cruel of the camera folk to pan out to the other side of the hall. Eek.

* TALKING of Mr Fordham. I spotted him at a book stall bulk-buying the new Chris Bowers biography of Clegg. He piled three hardbacks into his bag. A scan of the index reveals Ed features at least five points in the book, including much mention of his attendance at the boss’s wedding. Everybody at conference knows Ed, lots of waves as he walked through the conference centre. A few stalls down from the bookshop was his old mentor, writer and human rights campaigner Rebecca Tinsley – the ‘woman who persuaded me to get into all of this’. Should he be persevering with his attempts to get in the House of Commons, I asked. ‘No – I want him in the House of Lords’, Ms Tinsley replied. There’s a thought.

* ASKING a few north London Lib Dems whether they felt the press coverage since the general election and the forming of the coalition has been OTT bitter towards anybody with a yellow rosette,  the replies were unsurprisingly: yes, yes, yes,yes and so on. But ask them what paper has been the biggest meanies? The majority said The Guardian, the paper that told us to vote Lib Dem in the later stages of the the election campaign. Puzzle that one out.

* Fiona Millar snuck into the conference to talk about research she has co-authored for the Family Lives charity and the Perason Centre for Policy and Learning – it’s all about how schools should communicate with parents “in the digital age”. At a fringe organised by Demos, she talked about how parents didn’t just choose schools on league tables and Ofsted reports (although that information was important). She said families picked up word of mouth information at school gates and took on board local reputation among neighbours and peers. She wants schools to make more use of their websites for starters. When the discussion was opened up, I took the mic and asked whether it meant schools needed press officers and marketing departments to protect and promote each school’s brand against neighbourhood gossip and press stories. There was a little bit of tittering in the audience but it wasn’t meant as a lame Alastair Campbell joke. The worry should simply be that as schools compete to show themselves in the best light, people who began their careers just wanting to teach children and to create and work in good schools might have to wise up to the skills of marketing and PR as well – not always the natural craft of a school headteacher. The risk of doing nothing is that the school can’t sell itself online or in the community. Fiona acknowledged schools do not have big balances to fund PR people but she warned that heads might have to take on different skills in the future to ensure parents get the right – and the best – info about their schools.

*IF you do get a copy of the New Journal, you will see Chris Naylor doesn’t appear in the team line-up. It’s a shame, as he was at conference. I saw him. Best leave that one there… We miss you, Chris.

* THE yellow team are still working Bridget Fox hard – or at least she’s working them hard. So close to being the MP for Islington South (beaten by Emily Thornberry last year), she looked sleepy-eyed and rushed off her feet when I bumped into her in the conference centre. I asked a few questions about how her latest project, a charge on the London Assembl, was going – all ok, fine, yes. And then some questions about the boundary changes – yes,  yes, interesting, the City of London is happy because they have felt cut off in the past but will be connected to Islington at last. As we reached a natural pause, she asked me ‘and where are you standing…’ Poor Brij, she had been trying to work out who I was throughout the conversation. To think we had supped tea and gossiped together in Liverpool last year. I reassured her that I wouldn’t be standing for election anytime soon, anytime ever and advised her to get a bit of shuteye. Our paths will no doubt cross again on an election trail some place, sometime.

* HERE’S a fact about last year’s elections that I hadn’t heard before: the Hampstead and Kilburn’s General Election result was the closest three-way marginal result in British electoral history. Apparently, never before have three constituency candidates polled so closely at parliamentary elections. It won’t happen again, but it explains the intensity of the battle. PS: if anyone can prove this wrong, let me know… and I’ll get onto the Lib Dems and put them right. Until, then it’s in the book.

…and your special prize is…

WAGS in the Camden Labour Party turned up for Sally Gimson’s end of campaign party last night with a special gift for the victor of the Highgate by-election? Flowers? No. Bubbly? No. A copy of Alexis Rowell’s book on getting local authorities to reduce carbon? Yup, that’ll be the one.

The gift that keeps giving, Alexis, a couple of hundred votes of stopping Sally winning the poll, gave all Camden councillors a copy last year. Some recycling going on here?