Lib Dem Conference: Ten Things to Do Better

March 14, 2016 § 5 Comments

So, I’m back from my first Lib Dem conference. It was alright; I’m proud to have voted for the party to campaign to legalise cannabis, take a more balanced economic perspective, build a fairer deal for private renters, and oppose government intrusion into our privacy. There were some great moments that definitely had an impact on me as well – the three that come to mind most readily being David Grace’s excellent fringe meeting on the crisis in Syria, Tim Farron’s passionate and entirely right call for the government to shift on the issue of Afghan interpreters, and Sarah Brown’s outstanding “canary” speech which hit the nail brilliantly on the head regarding the underlying toxicity problems with how parties can work and how that especially negatively impacts on women.

But – as I said – it was… alright. I wasn’t put off going again, and I felt I’d “done my duty” in terms of voting and making a few very minor contributions in fringe meeting. But I felt that I was missing out on a lot, and that it wasn’t quite the extravaganza of excitement that it had been built up to me. I’m sure my experiences aren’t the same as everyone’s, and I know some people got a lot more out of conference than I feel I did. But then again, if I feel there are some things that could have made it better for me, chances are that others might feel the same way.

As such, here’s a little list of suggestions for things that I think might make conference a better and more welcoming place for myself and for others. It’s not necessarily comprehensive, not all the ideas are necessarily reasonable – but it’s my immediate thoughts, as waffled down in my current post-conference state of illness.

  1. Manage expectations. Slightly minor/pathetic point this one, but telling new members that, I quote,  debate organisers were “practically obliged” to call new attendees who wanted to speak on a specific point of interest did leave me feeling (having got up at 7 to scoot in early for the first Saturday motion and fill out a speakers’ card, addressing a point that wasn’t actually addressed in the debate at all) a little confused at what I had done wrong. I get the need to encourage new speakers, but it would be worth emphasising more heavily the low likelihood of actually getting selected to speak.
  2. Access to food.  Or more accurately access to affordable food, which wasn’t great, and accessible food, which also wasn’t. Getting to a fully packed programme of debates and fringes and getting enough to eat were pretty hard things to balance, and it might at the minimum be worth pre-emptively advising new people to stock up on packed lunches/food before a solid day running around conference.
  3. More blue skies policy fora. The “Your Liberal Britain” session was good, but extremely broad and more philosophical than policy driven – the other areas tended to be pretty specific. It would be good to have more fringe meetings to encourage blue skies thinking and bouncing ideas round on broad but workable topics. Might be something to try and get round to organising on my part of course…
  4. Not everyone drinks wine. And we shouldn’t expect them to. Credit to conference committee for recognising this in their new conference-goers event, but far too many things at conference assumed that wine would be an OK drink for everyone, from the pre-conference reception to the fringe events.
  5. Tackle ageism. This was a genuine issue at conference, and it’s been covered a decent amount elsewhere so I’m not going to write too much about it here. Suffice to say that at the least it may need to be made clearer to people that attacking the arguments of a qualified civil engineer on fracking is absolutely fine – attacking the engineer himself on the grounds of his being a “naive youth” is absolutely not appropriate for a policy debate.
  6. Better signage. The Novotel was close enough to the Barbican that a mere 2-3 sandwich boards with signs could have made it pretty easy to find. In practice it took rather longer than it needed to. Similarly in the hotels, finding the fringe events wasn’t always easy (for example, the SLF one I attended was on the programme in “meeting room 1”, which wasn’t too hard to find and I sort of recognised some faces in there but wasn’t actually labelled as such and didn’t have even a paper sign on the door saying what was going on there.
  7. Was the programme order optimal? I mostly ask this because two of the most important debates of the weekend – on economics on Saturday and the emergency motion on Sunday – were placed at the start of conference proceedings for the day whilst significant quantities of party business was placed mid-afternoon at times much easier to get to. It would make sense to me to put some of the party business motions, likely to attract fewer people, as early morning options; this would improve turnout on the more substantive policy debates and hopefully improve the representativeness of the resulting votes (especially notable that younger members, having probably had later nights, could end up underrepresented in the mornings).
  8. Double-check inclusiveness in organising. This I particularly noted with speakers’ cards – there were a range of different types, some of which only had binary gender options (in Lib Dem conference of all places), and those that did have an “other” box didn’t allow people to put their preferred pronouns, which would surely have made it more difficult for the chairs to announce them properly.
  9. That fundraising stunt before Tim’s speech was inappropriate. And seriously so. Lots of people in that hall were students – perhaps not many were low-income adults in or out of work, but we absolutely should expect and plan for people on low incomes to be part of our party. And after the significant cost of getting to a conference, including trains and accommodation, that sort of pressuring people to give money is really not on. It was a hall full of activists – the people who will happily sweat blood for our party – and the message that this rather crass stunt sent out was “if you REALLY care, you SURELY care enough to give a tenner to the In campaign”. Making that implication to the very people who will be mangling their keyboards and plodding their streets constantly for that goal for the next few months is insulting and demoralising. It was mentioned that this was the first time this had been tried at a party conference – for heaven’s sake let’s make sure it’s the last.
  10. More quieter spaces and ways of meeting people. This is fairly important for me; I can’t socialise properly in packed and noisy rooms, and will tend to absent myself from things at that point. It was assumed, from Liberal Youth stuff to Lib Dem Pint to the reception at the start of conference, that throwing me into a packed noisy room would allow me to socialise – it actually prevented me from doing so much of the time, and I hardly met anyone new at all, all weekend. This definitely scuppered perhaps the thing I’d hoped for most out of conference – being able to meet new interesting people – and is something that should definitely be a priority to address in future. Providing specific events to meet people that are designed to be more driven by tea and involve more space would be a great help for me – and probably even more of a help for people who have more significant problems with anxiety or worries over crowds than I do.

None of these points should take away the fact that I’m sure the conference committee work their hearts out to get these things put together, and they deserve a huge amount of gratitude from the rest of us in the Lib Dems. However, there are always improvements that can be made, and I hope it’s worth voicing them so our party can become the best, most inclusive force it can be for progress in British politics.

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