In an ideal democratic world, all Lib Dem members should be able to attend Lib Dem conference and have equal opportunity to participate in the running and the policies of the party without personal finance being a hindrance.
In reality of course conferences are expensive, and it is mostly the well-off members of the party who attend. For that reason it is likely that conference attendees are not representative of the party as a whole.
We do not live in an ideal world for a very simple reason; the national party has limited funds and lots of spending commitments some of which have a higher priority.
So what can we do at grassroots level to try and make things fairer?
I have been thinking about we can do a lot as my local party tries hard every year to get some of our members to go along to conference that can’t afford it. I have found I can sometimes get help simply by asking on the internet, particularly if there is a conference Facebook event. And then I thought why not go one better and create a Facebook group specifically for this purpose?
Which I duly did. And the applications to join flooded in. And in no time the group was fizzing with ideas about how to attend conference on a shoestring.
There are 5 main expenses to attending conference:
4) Daily living expenses, mostly food, drink and local travel.
5) Optional extras, from the Liberator song book to additional memberships and subscriptions.
Points 1 – 3 should be done in advance, and the more in advance you action these points, the easier and cheaper they will be. So if you are going to the York conference, action 1 – 2 now and 3 in the new year!
1) Registration. The party has opened registration for conference, and if your register now (up until 31st December) you get the best value for money; £52 for the spring conference in York on March 7–9th, plus an option to pay just £39 registration for the autumn conference in Glasgow on October 4-8th.
This is a fantastic deal, but it is not a shoestring deal. The ultimate shoestring deal is to volunteer to be a steward, see here for details.
2) Your biggest expense is likely to be accommodation. You may find you can approach the local party where the conference is being held and stay at someone’s house. Or you can try cheap accommodation. For example in York the YHA is well placed for conference, see here. Cheaper options than hotels include Bed and Breakfast (in York check out Fulford Road), sharing a flat – maybe organise with your local party or region, and even sharing a mobile home. It can also be cheaper if you book a place at some distance from the venue, maybe a nearby town or outer suburb, although add to that the extra travel costs. And remember; important to plan and book well in advance.
3) Travel. Your shoestring options are car (driving or lifting) and coaches. Trains are expensive but you can get good deals if you book early. It is possible your local region may organise a coach to conference. The Green Democrats currently are looking into offering their members to take a coach to conference. It is always worth looking on the main Lib Dem website for special travel deals. Currently National Express are offering 50% off their fares for conference.
4/ Daily expenses. The fringe meeting guide will indicate which fringe meetings serve free food by showing a cup and saucer. However there is an art in working out whether you will get a decent meal. Sometimes if you make a quick exit from one fringe meeting you can find another with a better choice. Usually the best food comes from business lobby groups, and sometimes trade unions. Be grateful to them by all means but bear in mind why they are doing it, it is not out of a desire to feed the hungry! Fringe meetings often start in the morning with breakfast, so you should be able to get food throughout the day. Look out for any special offers for local travel cards.
5) Optional extras. This is where you have to say no, although there are some organisations such as Ethnic Minority Lib Dems (EMLD) who you do not have to pay anything to join! Sometimes if you put on the charm, or you win their sympathy by telling them how poor you are, someone else might pay your membership for you (so I am told). If you are hoping to go on a shoestring, or can offer help with lifts and accommodation, you are welcome to join the Facebook group here. It is a closed group, but if you can show you are a Lib Dem member you will be let in.
* Geoff Payne is the events organiser for Hackney Liberal Democrats