Last year was the first time I’d been to a Federal Conference in 13 years. I thoroughly enjoyed every exhausting moment. Conference is the best fun you will ever have, but if you’re new, it can be a bit overwhelming until you get used to the sensory overload. I spent the first day wandering round like a child in a toy shop.
So, with that in mind, I thought I’d throw together a fairly random list of tips and hints for getting the best out of the annual cornucopia of Liberal Democracy.
1. Plan your days
The Conference day starts with breakfast fringes as early as 7 and goes on until the small hours. There’s a comprehensive training programme alongside the debates in the hall. There are ministerial surgeries. There are 20 or 30 separate fringe meetings in every fringe slot. You can guarantee that you will never be bored and that several things you want to see will be on at the same time. If you want to go to the big events like the New Statesman or Channel 4 events, you are best advised to get there early because they fill up quickly.
2. The Liberal Democrat Voice fringes
I wouldn’t be abusing my editorial position properly if I didn’t put in an almighty plug for the Liberal Democrat Voice Fringes. The much coveted Blog of the Year awards will be presented on Saturday night from 10.15 pm in the Pavilion Room in the Grand Hotel. This has been missed out of the Directory so get it in your diary now.
On Sunday from 8-9.15 pm in the Gloucester room in the Hilton Metropole, the Chief Whip, Alistair Carmichael, steps out of the shadows to chair/referee our debate on what should be in the 2015 manifesto between the Social Liberal Forum and Liberal Reform. That’s bound to be an unmissably frank exchange of views.
3. Rally or the Doctor?
Now, I can’t blame the Conference organisers for this. Not in the history of the Liberal Democrats has Doctor Who has clashed with the traditional first night of Conference rally. The last time it was on a Saturday night was in the mid 1980s. However, given that many Liberal Democrats are also Doctor Who fans, this presents a dilemma. The Rally is supposed to finish at 7:30, when Doctor Who starts, but I’ll believe that when I see it. It really is a choice between Jo Swinson and Matt Smith or Karen Gillan and Tim Farron. Actually, come to think of it, Farron would make quite a good Doctor…
4. Make time to do the Exhibition properly
Organisations pay the party a small fortune to have a stall in the exhibition. It’s therefore only polite for us all to take time to visit their stalls. But it’s not just about manners. They are actually really interesting. You have a mix of companies trying to sell you things, voluntary organisations wanting to tell you things and book stalls that are just far too tempting. It’s a good opportunity to sign up for some of the many Party groups – the Humanists and Secularists, or ALDC, or Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform to name but a few. If you’re going to do it properly, it’ll take you a while. It took me a whole afternoon last year but it’s really worth it. You learn loads, meet lovely people and pick up some good freebies.
A quick tip – the NUT have their annual fish and chip supper on Tuesday night. Tickets are available from their stall, but they are like gold dust. If you want to stand a chance of getting one, get there early.
5. To Glee or not to Glee?
You either love or hate The Glee Club, the raucous end of Conference singathon. I’m firmly in the love it camp. Singing the traditional, funny or downright rude songs that make up the Liberator Song Book is a great way to end Conference on a high. There are regular guest appearances by the likes of Tim Farron and Paddy Ashdown. The day after the event last year, there was a very funny interview with Alistair Carmichael on the World at One where Martha Kearney played a recording of us singing “The 12 days of Coalition. He talked his way out of it admirably. I thoroughly recommend that you give this madness a go. It is unique and nobody laughs at ourselves like we do.
6. Don’t assume you’ll bump into your friends by accident
Last year, some of my best friends were there and I never saw them. Conference is a big place. If you want to make sure you catch up with people, organise in advance.
If you’re there on your own for the first time, we are a pretty friendly bunch, so don’t be shy. Speak to the person next to you in the coffee queue whether it’s a government minister or another activist.
7. Try and get out and see some of Brighton
Those of a trashy persuasion might decide that a pilgrimage to Peter Andre’s coffee shop is in order. I’ll be very surprised if my colleague Dr Pack can keep himself away from Choccywoccydoodah’s Bar du Chocolat. The Lanes have some lovely shops and restaurants and there’s always the beach.
Whatever you do, have a fantastic Conference.
* Caron Lindsay is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings