I joined the LibDems in 2009, following a conversation with Steve Webb MP on an entirely different subject, feeling claustrophic, cynical, disoriented and stripped of hope.
Claustropobic because both government policy and the cultural tone it set gave me a sense that one wasn't allowed to do anything if it were not explicitly permitted. That there was a single, proper way of parenting, eating, education, thinking to which one was being pushed to conform.
Cynical because the expenses scandal reinforced the perception that politicians were only in it for themselves and yet disoriented following a talk by, of all people, Zac Goldsmith where his description of his experience even with the broadsheets left me with the sense of being in a hall of mirrors, unable to rely on any of the images of the world the media presented.
And hopeless. There are New Labour achievements which I think were a great step forward - Northern Ireland, corporate social responsibility, the social enterprise agenda spring to mind. But these were outweighed by my experiences, whether in trying to achieve the laudable aims for Community Services Partnerships where Treasury control-freakery strangled the policy baby or in the voluntary sector where siloed thinking by funders stifled innovation. Further there was the lack of long term thinking - the pensions and energy issues for example were exacerbated by a reluctance to make electorally difficult decisions. That's without Iraq, child detention and ID cards. But most of all I think what killed my hope for the future was the sense of a complete and utter capitulation to the City and the existing economic model. If the left accepted that democracy has little sway over capitalism, what hope for all those of us who want an economy which reflects our values rather than dictates them?
So what did I find in the LibDems? Idealism grounded by a membership embedded in its communities and sectors; open, welcoming, hard-working, committed; incredibly tolerant of newcomers with a propensity to put their foot in their mouth, a culture of debating and consensus rather than head-to-head macho battles and yet hardened fighters. No airs and graces, no sense that government rank makes a person any different from any other member or any member of the public. Yes, flawed people and flawed systems because people are just people, and yes, mistakes because what I have seen is complexity beyond human capability - politics covers every person and every subject. It is insoluble. There are no correct or easy answers. only the values and intelligence you bring to tackling the questions.
I'm well aware that my impressions of the other parties are based for the most part on what I read, see and hear through the media. I suspect I would find a reasonable amount of commonality at the Conferences and certainly with many individuals. But for me the LibDems constitutional protection from imprisonment by conformity and the fact that it actually practices democracy, so that ordinary members to make policy and run the party, places clear water between it and the other two main parties.
In short, my membership of the LibDems has been like getting out of a small car after a long journey, destination dictated by the driver. I've taken large gulps of fresh air (even if at times it's buffeting winds!) and stretched, taken a good look around and been encouraged to stretch my wings. My sense of freedom, purpose and hope have returned and I feel supported as if by family.
So thank you everyone – inside and out of the party - for your support and inspiration so far. It’s time now for me to make a real commitment.