So, now that the Lib Dem autumn conference has officially come to an end, it seems like a good idea to talk about my experience of it.
This was my first trip to autumn conference as the only conference I had attended previously was spring conference in Sheffield earlier this year. All in all, the biggest differences I noticed were that the conference venue was bigger, security was lighter - probably due to the introduction of the controversial accreditation process - and the colour scheme for the auditorium was traditional yellow rather than the turquoise of Sheffield.
The inside of the conference venue was a lot like a shopping centre - though this did cause some confusion as it meant the display stands were split over two levels rather than one as they've been previously. Also, for some reason, the Youth Zone was tucked away down a corridor that was very easy to miss which was a slight disappointment.
What I enjoyed most about conference was the atmosphere. As Clegg said in a speech, the Lib Dems are like a large family and that familial atmosphere was definitely tangible throughout conference. I also loved the way I kept on spotting groups of mostly strangers good-naturedly debating some issue or another (usually accreditation) and yet never falling out over it even when they disagreed with each other completely. The official debates were much the same. It was also good to see how, as I've found in the past, the way in which the representatives collectively voted tended to take what I would call the wisest course.
Some highlights were being able to partake in MP and personality spotting, as well as being able to meet some of them. This did lead to my witnessing some amusing cases of mistaken identity though - my favourite was a 12 year old who thought Danny Alexander was George Osbourne. As a matter of fact, that 12 year old is named Claire and has been a party for longer than I have. She's also rather terrifying as she was born in 1999 - therefore making me feel very old - and because she had just consumed a very large coffee when I met her and was therefore ever so slightly hyper.
As it happens, I ended up being interviewed live along with Claire and another young Lib Dem named Connor for the BBC News four o'clock bulletin - exciting stuff.
In addition to Danny Alexander, I spotted Chris Huhne being interviewed and I also encountered Tim Farron twice - once when entering the conference when I couldn't help exclaiming "It's Tim!" and he said "Hi" as he walked past - and also after the debate on the ESA motion and he said "Well done" as he walked past me on the way to the stage to chair the next debate. Another incident that sticks out is witnessing Lembit Opik chatting up a 20 something female journalist whilst being interviewed by her. I have to say, it reminded me of the time Liberal Youth nearly passed a motion banning Lembit from coming within 200 yards of anyone under the age of 25.
Other elements of conference were, as they always are, great fun. I met, or rather saw, for the first time the "NUKILLER POWER IS AN OFFENCE TO GOD" protester who apparently always attends our conferences but who missed Sheffield. I also got the chance to meet several people I knew from facebook or the blogosphere but whom I'd never actually met in person. Meeting the lovely Caron Lindsay, even if only for a few minutes, was especially pleasant.
I also caught up with Sophie Bridger of Liberal Youth Scotland and, together with Katie Smith, we had a joint nerdgasm over how amazing our new election software was - it also turns out that Katie is the one who came up with the name for it: "Connect".
I also met a 15 year old Liberal Youth girl called Alex who lives in Scotland but comes from England and who intends to be either Chief Whip or the next Alastair Campbell when she grows up. She also spoke to me about her intentions to write a motion about scrapping SATS and I've promised to give her advice on it so I expect you will hear more about this later.
Later, Alex and Sophie introduced me to Alistair Carmichael, MP for the Orkney and Shetland Islands and the Lib Dem Chief Whip. I have to say that he seemed like a very nice person with a good sense of humour. I also met him again on the Sunday and, when Alex spoke to him about her intent to be the next Chief Whip, he joked about the difficulty of killing rivals with rat poison in cocaine (a la House of Cards) and spoke of his preference for shoving them off roofs instead.
On the Saturday night I also missed out on winning the Lib Dem Blog of the Year Award for the best new blog but given the victory on ESA the same day, I guess it's proof that one can't have everything in life. Afterwards I tried to sneak off back to my hotel to sleep but was ambushed by former Chair of Liberal Youth, Martin Shapland, and some friends who kidnapped me by force and frogmarched me off to a nightclub which did 50p shots. That was the plan at any rate.
This then led to another highlight of the trip as we then stopped off at the Hyatt Regency Hotel to round up some more people but, as we were leaving, Kim, a fellow Guildford party member (who never comes to meetings meaning that I had made her acquaintance for the first time earlier that day) had the bad luck to trip and fall down two steps and land awkwardly, twisting her ankle through 90 degrees and severely spraining it. Given that I hadn't really wanted to go to the nightclub anyway, I volunteered to be the one to accompany her to the hospital as Kim bravely insisted that everyone else enjoy their evening.
As a result I spent most of the night in A&E and didn't get to bed until 6am in the morning. Mind you, it was much worse for Kim though as she had to put up with pain on top of the boredom and tiredness we both suffered as well as having the hassle of having to use crutches and be booked in for physiotherapy afterwards. I spoke to her recently on the phone though and apparently her ankle isn't quite as bad as the doctor had first thought. And, on the plus side, at least I got to see a part of Birmingham that most outsiders wouldn't normally get to see. Less positively, it also provided proof of how some parts of the NHS are severely underfunded after all these years which has at least motivated me to take the issue of healthcare more seriously.
Overall though, conference was great fun and I can't wait to go again next year when I'll be able to stay for the full conference period and not just the weekend. Besides, I'll need to go back to replenish my stocks of Lib Dem branded chocolate :)