AS THE autumn party political season got going, reporter BARBARA FISHER decided to share the experiences of a typical delegate at the annual few days of policy-setting and partying. She met Hillingdon Lib Dem delegates in Bournemouth for their party's event last week.
I ARRIVED in Bournemouth on a warm Friday, the day before the Liberal Democrat conference started. Disappointingly there was no sign of any activity, with even the media area spookily silent.
A lone reporter from the Daily Express sat tapping lethargically on his laptop, and a copy of The Sun was the only sign of life on the table reserved for The Times reporters.
But by early evening Bournemouth was buzzing, and after wine and burritos with former Hillingdon Lib Dem councillor Tony Little, I was ready for a party - political or otherwise.
We trooped up to the main hotel to join more of the Hillingdon contingent - about a dozen members were expected - and because apparently this was where most of the action, away from the main conference and fringe meetings, takes place.
The atmosphere was electric. Lively, crowded and noisy, it embraced a passionate pick-and-mix of types, a sort of Friends Reunited for politicos.
From students and seniors, divas to dons, you could see the LDs from all over the country shared that great feeling when everyone is batting for the same team. I was beginning to understand the attraction of the annual meet-up.
After joining Hillingdon Council Lib Dem leader Mike Cox, former leader Steve Carey and local party organiser Pete Dollimore at the hotel bar, I was soon well into my stride, and a few glasses later I decided to tackle MP Lembit Opik.
The MP for Montgomeryshire greeted me with a kiss, like a long lost friend, and we proceeded to chat about the media (we agreed leader Nick Clegg needed to be seen more often on TV); about Lembit's appearances on Have I Got New for You (he really enjoyed them) and about his unusual accent ("Guess" he said, but I couldn't); in fact it is an attractive mix of Northern Ireland, north-east England and maybe a bit of Estonia from his parents.
But of course what I really wanted to ask him about was THAT engagement (his relationship with Cheeky Girl Gabriella Irimia) - was it on or off - but how could I broach it without sending him running for cover?
"So how's your social life Lembit?" I heard myself blurting out. He stopped in his tracks, so I looked him straight in the eye and rephrased it. "Ok, how's your love life?" I asked, as he came closer.
"Are you making a move on me?" he laughed, quickly adding: "You just want a scoop don't you?" before shaking his head to indicate I wasn't going to get it.
We both laughed and this bossy broad left him alone with his cheeky girl memories - and nothing for the gossip columns.
During the rest of the evening I found myself chatting to many committed people, from activists 'on the ground' to Lord Rennard MBE, chief executive of the party, who I should have recognised but didn't.
Thank goodness, after giving him 'sound', but probably slurred, advice on the future of the Lib Dems, he very kindly gave me his business card to spare my blushes.
The next day I was pleased to run into Hillingdon councillor Jill Rhodes, a former mayor of the borough; I then got stuck into the other side of conference life when proceedings kicked off formally with subjects such as Giving Citizens a Voice in Parliament.
I admit to being a bit of an anorak when it comes to things like debates and motions and amendments. In the 1980s I was very involved in local politics in Hillingdon with the SDP, which eventually merged with the Liberals, and there were some good, sound arguments to get me going.
In the afternoon, new leader Nick Clegg roused the faithful in a rally, and I must say, though originally sceptical, I was impressed with his style.
But before Mr Clegg began, Simon Hughes MP introduced some young dancers from somewhere up north to entertain us, which was a nice touch.
Amusingly, they got the first standing ovation of the conference.
On Sunday I trotted along to a press conference, where Vince Cable, the shadow chancellor, was spouting on tax cuts.
I collared him afterwards to ask him about appearing in the news that day for having been refused a place on Strictly Come Dancing.
Mr Cable, who is a nifty hoofer, admitted he was disappointed.
"There is always an old person who gets thrown out pretty quickly because they aren't any good and I wanted to see if I could do any better," he explained.
However he dismissed my idea of suggesting a Political Come Dancing, saying the BBC wouldn't go for it. Shame.
After a quick coffee, where I was asked by the young man serving me: "Excuse me, are you an MP?" (I so wanted to say 'yes'), I scurried to a lunchtime fringe meeting with Lib Dem members of the House of Lords on tackling terrorists legislation and so on - well it did come with the promise of refreshments.
I was mortified when everyone started talking about disabled access and I realised I was in the wrong room, so I muttered my excuses and left, only to find all the sandwiches had been eaten by the Lords and friends, and there was nowhere to sit.
This would never happen to a conference regular.
Before heading for home I joined a debate on pensions, in which everyone wondered if we'd live long enough to enjoy them, and then members were able to enjoy a question session with Mr Clegg.
A quick whizz round the exhibitions made me hunger for longer in Bournemouth, particularly when I spotted a stand for Gurkha Justice, as the plight of some former Gurkha soldiers not being able to settle in this country is hot news at the moment.
As I set off to find my car I thought about the great time I'd had during my conference taster - there was still three days to go for hard-core conference-goers - and I was left with the great feeling of bonhomie which I'm sure members from all parties experience at these get-togethers.
I stopped to chat to protestors who had been standing outside, and who turn up in various guises at every conference.
A group from the charity Rethink was dressed for a Mad Hatter's tea party, with placards saying: 'It's Mad that you can't sit on a jury if you have a mental illness' and nearby a man stood on a soap box with a placard which on one side complained about smoking; on the reverse it espoused vegetarianism.
"You're not from MI5 are you?" he asked as I took his photo.
It was definitely time to head for home.