How to 'call an audience'
How do you predict which way a conference hall full of delegates is going to vote?
I was teased on Monday for getting a little carried away by Lib Dem conference.
I had been sitting in the Lib Dem debate on tax – the Big One, the party's clause 4 moment, the day Gladstone was disinterred etc – but after listening to (very good) short speeches inside the auditorium, I got pulled out of the debate before the vote at the end and so was back at the Guardian's desk (actually trestle tables) when the conference hall voted.
What did I think, esteemed colleagues asked me. High on conference hall ambience I said I thought it could be more interesting than everyone thought - that the leadership may not get its tax proposals through with 99% support. Oh, OK... I was a bit stronger.
Of course there was no way they were going to be defeated - the Lib Dem membership are in no mood to punish their leader before his first full year in the job is up - but, from a seat two rows from the front, I thought the claps and heckles and sounds of disgruntlement coming from the audience were louder than the sounds of support.
I'd also been sitting next to a friend who is a Lib Dem adviser and with a woman I didn't know on the other. She mistook me for another activist and gave me a very sensitive commentary all the way through on precisely what she thought of the Make It Happen proposals.
The man proposing the motion, Danny Alexander, sounded like a "management consultant", she said, while the man who wanted it amended, "sounded like he really cared".
"The trouble is, I'm a Vince girl" she said of the shadow chancellor's backing of the tax amendments, "and the only reason I have at the moment to back this is that Vince wants it. So it's a real struggle".
"Fuck," said the policy adviser on my other side "we're in trouble".
In the event, the party leadership won. They were always going to. Hence the teasing. I'd called the room wrong.
How to "call" an audience? At dinner last night I learned the following tip. Do not listen to an audience – it will be the extreme positions, the ones seeking to enlist more people to their cause, who will be loudest.
Choose a row in the auditorium and stick with it throughout the speech. Every time a speaker sits down or pauses for applause, look down that row and see who of your 20 or so delegates is clapping like a seal or a bit more circumspect. Stick with them throughout the debate. Then take a call on which way you think they will vote.
I still think that if I'd had done this and picked an audience row during and after Paul Holmes' amendment speech, that row would still have been genuine in their support. He was very good.
But in general I wonder whether the wisdom of single audience rows rather than the wisdom of crowds might be more accurate.
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