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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§ 5 Responses to Lib Dem Conference: Ten Things to Do Better

  • Lucy says:

    Thanks, some important points. And here’s some feedback from someone who’s lost count of the number of conferences she’s attended!
    I agree very much on the wine comment (as someone who doesn’t drink). This may be partly driven by what’s on offer from the venue, but that’s no reason not to try to change the venue’s minds as well.
    Good point too about space to chat. York had fewer options for informal socialising space than many venues, though there were a few. And even if there is somewhere to sit, it doesn’t mean starting a conversation is easy. Perhaps this could be combined with the ‘blue-sky thinking’ point and there could be designated social space with discussion themes?
    I spotted the ageist remark too – and was one of many people in the auditorium who made grumbling, disapproving noises. Personally I think this sort of self-policing is better than expecting the chair to intervene.
    Finance is a big and constant problem for the party. I think that Spring Conference makes a loss, and the more space that is booked, the higher the cost. So I don’t begrudge the need for fund-raising (buckets are passed round every time I’ve been). Just don’t feel pressured – any more than when you are ‘chugged’ in the High Street.
    I still don’t manage meals well… and it’s worse in the autumn with a longer conference. One option is to stay somewhere with cooking facilities (hostel, apartment) and escape from the tyranny of takeaways.
    Finally, this autumn there are the next scheduled elections for Federal Conference Committee, unless the current constitutional review results in changes before then. How about standing for election?

    • jubalbarca says:

      Designated social spaces with discussion themes would be great, certainly. I probably agree that self-policing is better, I suspect that chairs shouldn’t intervene directly in that way, I wonder if some gentle generic public reminders could be made in some way though.

      I appreciate that finance is a problem, but will have to agree to disagree on the fundraising stunt. It wasn’t the fact that buckets were passed around, which of course is fine – it was the crass showmanship and hammering down of the “we should always be happy to ask for money” and shouting out about how much each person in the hall ought to contribute that was the problem. It didn’t feel like there was any acceptance of the fact that different people will contribute different amounts in different ways to different campaigns, and I do genuinely think it was unpleasant for people well beyond what can be sorted by suggesting that people just shouldn’t feel pressured by it. Of course we can and should think about how we fundraise at and via conferences, but this was the wrong way to do it.

      Yes – I was lucky enough to have a friend in the city to stay with, but that was sufficiently far away that I was rather under the thumb of the sandwich industry.

      Final point – eep! I mean, it’s something I could think about, I’ve been lead organiser on small convention-type events before. I guess I’d be a tad nervous that my situation, location and indeed finances are not necessarily going to be stable in the next year or two, and FCC may need people who can more reliably run around the country…

  • Gareth says:

    Interesting piece, James. As a Conference Committee member whose first Conference was twenty years ago, a few thoughts on some of those points:-

    I agree that expectations of those submitting speakers’ cards need to be managed. In general, at Spring and even more for the big debates at Autumn, demand for speaking slots exceeds by supply. In the case of the housing debate at Bournemouth, that was by at least 4 to 1. I managed to call several first time speakers in that debate, but you can’t make everyone happy.

    Food and wine – yes, a perennial bugbear, and largely a symptom of the dreadful chain hotels we are tied to for the fringe circuit.

    Inclusive speakers’ cards – someone forgot to put the old ones in the recycling and put them on the information desk instead. Fail. It shouldn’t happen again.

    On ageism in debates, I’d welcome some discussion on this. I was taken aback by the comment by the intervention speaker (and thought there were other comments that were a bit disrespectful). I also noticed the patronising and belittling social media responses to some Liberal Youth members. To that speaker I thought Conference made its response absolutely clear. I don’t think I have ever heard a Chair call out a speaker for a remark (hecklers are different and one came very close to getting called out in the same debate); should I have done it? It sets a potentially undesirable precedent.

    On your final point, I do agree. There were moves to introduce quieter (not to mention alcohol-free) spaces, but this seems to have stalled. Happy to take that up.

    Please do give this feedback and more when the email questionnaire is sent in the next few days; Conference Committee does go through it line-by-line, and we genuinely welcome it!

    • jubalbarca says:

      Thankyou, will do – I was wondering whether a feedback thing would emerge at some point!

      I agree with you that calling speakers out from the chair would probably be a bad precedent except perhaps in far more egregious and exceptional cases – I wonder if some more gentle and generic public pointers on how to engage with other speakers more positively might be helpful nonetheless. Definitely something that needs more thought and discussion than my illness-addled brain can currently apply to it!

      Agreed on all the rest. Out of interest, one thing I was wondering and can’t find out where to find out – what are the sorts of ratios on motions submitted to motions debated at conferences? I can imagine them being huge, but I don’t have any evidence for that.

      • Gareth says:

        Thanks.
        The answer is: ‘it varies’ but the ratio of motions submitted to taken is generally 2 to 1 if not more. Zoe O’Connell now reports the outcomes of FCC meetings on LDV.

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