A year ago, I set off for Bournemouth with little enthusiasm and not a little dread. Whilst the message for public consumption was upbeat, there was a small, still voice, clamouring for attention, warning of a likely third party squeeze, and of losses to the Conservatives as they swept to power.
Little did any of us know that, a year later, we would be gathering to reflect on the unpredictability of politics, and we would have Liberal Democrats as Ministers of the Crown. And with that comes a whole world of questions, risks and opportunities.
Will our conference change? Will the sudden appearance of the world's media cause a general battening down of the hatches, the emergence of a command and control style management of agenda, speakers and dissent? After all, that is what we have come to expect from Labour and, sadly, our coalition partners.
The signs are, thus far, positive. Debating Trident, marriage rights for all and diversity indicates that, whilst the leadership (or at least, some of it) might prefer us to look like a 'party of government', delegates are unwilling to allow themselves to be dictated to by the likes of the Daily Mail*. Indeed, following staffing cuts, more motions than ever are springing up from groups of ordinary members, as the ever lovely Baroness Scott** notes in her pre-Conference piece in Liberal Democrat News.
And what an opportunity now presents itself. We will be able to question real ministers, with real power to change things, to implement Liberal Democrat policies and ideas. Whilst the idea of being a middle class pressure group is a cosy one, the whole point of involving oneself in politics is to make people's lives better, to protect the poor and vulnerable and build a nation where there is genuine opportunity for all.
People suddenly want to talk to us now. Our International Office have never been so busy, fielding requests from diplomats keen to find out who we are. The very idea of the Chinese Embassy hosting a fringe meeting would have been unthinkable even a year ago, but they feel the need to make their case - we have a junior minister in the Foreign Office, Jeremy Browne, who appears to have the East Asia brief.
Business too. The fringe agenda is filled with opportunities to meet with industry lobby groups who have suddenly realised that we need to be 'made nice to'. Actually, we don't, but we do want to find out what they have to say, and how we can develop a positive relationship. For the most part, we're idea driven, and the more data we have, the better our decision making is likely to be. The fact that we've never been the prisoners of the unions or of big business, means that we're relatively open-minded.
Of course, we are blinking in the media spotlight. There are more journalists than ever before, most looking for stories of dissent, of policy splits, of fears about the Coalition and its effects on our future prospects. And they'll find them. If they don't, they'll probably make them up, as it suits their agenda. We don't believe in corralling journalists so that they only meet trusted individuals, not that it would be possible anyway. Besides, I fear that they'll find that, for the most part, we look and feel like everybody else, a bit earnest, perhaps a bit worthy, but pleased to see old friends and share a pint at the bar.
So, enjoy our conference, whoever you are and what your reasons for attending are. We don't bite (unless you really like that sort of thing), we have a quirky sense of humour, and we'd like you to like us. See you there...
* We know that they don't like us much, and we're not expecting much in the way of positive coverage.
** Yes, she's my wife, and I'm damned proud of her