A special Lib Dem Winter Crisis Conference

We are most likely heading into a bleak winter. The UK is in dire shape – the loss of our Queen, a lacklustre government, the economic downturn, energy and cost of living crises, strikes, ongoing Brexit consequences – maybe even the return of some COVID variant. Public support for Ukraine under these difficult circumstances must also be maintained.

This is the moment for the Lib Dems to show Britain that we have policies to deal with these critical issues. The answer could be a Special Lib Dem Conference on the Winter Crisis, as permitted by our constitution, to be held in November, just at the onset of winter, in substitution for our lost Autumn Conference.

The Federal Board and Federal Conference Committee rightly decided that the Autumn Conference could not go ahead at a time the country was in mourning. But what was unexpected was a single all-encompassing decision to completely cancel the conference rather than reschedule.

We cannot be absent ourselves from the political scene at this critical moment. The two main parties are proceeding with their conferences. The Trade Unions have postponed and will have theirs later. The FCC suggested that our parliamentary spokespersons could cover this off. But we need to take decisions and only the party membership can authorise policy through a fully-fledged decision-taking conference.

This does not need to be an expensive enterprise. A stripped-down virtual conference of maximum 1-2 days could be shorn of fringes, exhibits and the like. As with previous virtual conferences, we should have the technological possibility to debate, to comment during the debate and to vote, but no need for more. A Leader’s and a few other short speeches (including on budgetary and environmental affairs) would add inspiration.

We would only be handling key motions which deal with the current crises heading into the winter, time sensitive motions (including urgencies) and manifesto preparations where there are major omissions, such as electoral incentives for British citizens living abroad, all of whom have now been given the vote back.

Proposers of motions should be consulted to see whether they would like their motions to go ahead at such a conference rather than wait for a 2023 Spring Conference. Unless the Spring Conference is extended to 4 days or possibly more, it would be difficult to handle the volume of postponed motions and Party business in addition to new motions.

A vote should be held online with all members to gauge their views about such a conference. It is not just what the general public think of us. Our members need to see that we are winning. At the moment, they need a shorter-term goal to work towards. And see that they have a voice, that their party is relevant, that it cares.

Just letting things go should not be an option.

* George Cunningham is Chair of the Lib Dems Abroad Steering Committee and a newly-elected member of the 2023-25 FIRC Executive.

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34 Comments

  • John Gordon Kelly 15th Sep '22 - 9:22am

    George – you make a powerful case. I had wondered about negotiating with the Conference centre in York to bring the Spring Conference forward to being a Winter conference in November or December, as we haven’t had an in-person conference for so long. But maybe your suggestion is a more practical alternative.

  • The LibDem Podcast released an episode discussing a lot of the practical issues of this a couple of days ago. I’ve only listened to some of it so far, and those with an interest would be better off hearing it directly, but it seems that it will be too difficult to move to a different date in York, and it was agreed it would be impractical to organise an in-person event this year. There is a lot of ‘we want to meet in person’ going about, often from people who don’t get involved in policy work, so online only is dismissed. It’s not that I don’t see the benefits of an in-person event, but a paired back online effort to at the very least discuss some of the policy issues would be useful.

    A system allowing rigorous voting may be too cumbersome and expensive to organise, but there remains value in presenting and discussing ideas. I’d be interested in a one-day or even two-day event where the focus is on explaining and discussing ideas, rather than trying to win a vote. It would be refreshing to switch up the format and include presentations with graphics to explain the data to back up a point. IMO, the ideal scenario would be a string of sessions that are a hybrid of a fringe and a traditional debate, with (indicative) voting.

    This may allow for briefer, and therefore more debates in Spring.

  • An emergency conference re the cost of living crisis could surely be held on Hopin. No training, exhibition or Fringe events; just urgent party business including policy debates. Also be aware that regional conferences take place at this time – could it be held over several evenings? Looking forward to York!

  • Colin Bloodworth 16th Sep '22 - 2:35am

    Events are moving fast. The next six months will be crucial. The voices of the major parties will be heard loudly at their conferences as they debate the war in Ukraine, the energy crisis, cost of living, inflation, the country’s relationship with Europe etc. Particularly the last one where Boris Johnson played into Putin’s hands by driving a wedge between the UK and Europe with his disastrous Brexit. Not only has it contributed to many of the ills in the economy, it now risks a return to the grim days of conflict in Northern Ireland.
    Bearing in mind that thousands of Brits who have lived overseas for more than 15 years will now have a chance to vote in the next general election, this is a great opportunity to let them know that they will be best served by the Lib Dems, particularly some half a million whose state pensions have been frozen since the day they left the UK!
    The major party conferences are going to get a lot of attention as these critical issues are debated. It could make a huge impact if the Lib Dems could have the ‘last word’ by arranging a high profile event just after the major parties have spoken.

  • Suzanne Fletcher 16th Sep '22 - 8:29am

    without thinking of practicalities for such I do think something should be arranged for there to be a Leaders Speech. Even a sort of mini conference focussing on just the fuel and cost of living crisis.

  • Phillip Bennion 16th Sep '22 - 8:57am

    I joined the Board meeting last weekend to discuss the options put forward by the FCC convinced that outright cancellation would not be agreed. Like George, I could see that going ahead around the backdrop of the Queen’s funeral was not possible and I presumed that a shorter online version after the Conference season would be the solution. However, there was little support for going online, by my reading of the meeting, because of the sheer disappointment of not meeting in person, and for cost and workload reasons. The extra cost and time required to mount an online conference with voting far exceeded my expectations, coming after the financial hit of the cancellation.

    George is absolutely right that we cannot absent ourselves from the political scene at this crucial time and we should explore all options. I did propose that Spring Conference be extended to deal with the deferred business and this is being followed up, but we need the kind of public and press engagement brought by Conference this autumn, whilst the Truss government is still bedding in. Federal International Relations Committee will do its best and we are looking at an event to tag on to a Regional Conference, but we will not attract the media attention the party needs. We must either support George’s proposal or come up with an alternative idea for a high profile event to give us the media attention that the other parties will enjoy at their Conferences, otherwise our recent resurgence in electoral success will peter out.

  • Suzanne Fletcher 16th Sep '22 - 10:03am

    @phillipbenyon Strongly agree with “we need the kind of public and press engagement brought by Conference this autumn, whilst the Truss government is still bedding in.”
    it sounds as though something with voting is not going to be feasible, but we need to “showcase” what we already have and if necessary have something agreed to update our policy.

  • Catherine Royce 16th Sep '22 - 10:50am

    I absolutely agree with George.
    We need to be visible and certainly cannot simply defer everything until the Spring conference. A Special Conference in November fits the bill but needs to cover more than the Winter energy crisis, a totally new political landscape has emerged over the summer. I’d favour paring down the agreed autumn ’22 conference agenda which can then be covered in 2 days.

  • Oliver Robbins 16th Sep '22 - 11:57am

    I definitely agree with this. I’m sure that a big conference in the vein of what was planned for Autumn Conference wouldn’t be possible, but we should do whatever we can manage.

  • I absolutely agree that we need a virtual Winter Conference. As George says, now is not the time to let things go. Someone has to inject some common sense into Government, to take a lead and end the cycle of ‘political tampering’, short-termism, kneejerk reactions, smoke and mirrors of the self-serving Tories. We LibDems need to step up and be counted. Show the country that there is a better way and that we have the ideas, and the will, humanity and humility to lead us to a future less fractured and chaotic.

  • I agree totally with George. As I have said elsewhere. shooting ourselves in the foot and absenting ourselves from political debate is disastrous for the party. Let’s face it, we’re not doing wonderfully well. despite two excellent by-election wins. Abandoning the conference not only takes us out of the current political debate, it will cost us shedloads of money that would have been far better spent on campaigning.
    If we abandoned our fixation with having conferences in the SE, we could almost certainly have an in person conference for 2-3 days in Birmingham, Glasgow, Leeds or Newcastle.
    I despair that this once radical party is now so afraid to upset anyone that it neither says or does anything that might not be well received. We should not have cancelled the conference, except perhaps part of the Monday, and should now organise an in person conference ASAP and it should be OUTSIDE London and the SE

  • Mark Morris 16th Sep '22 - 3:53pm

    “This does not need to be an expensive enterprise. A stripped-down virtual conference of maximum 1-2 days could be shorn of fringes, exhibits and the like”

    Perhaps the above two sentences were trying to some say something different and perhaps I have misunderstood something.

    However, for me it confirms a worrying trend that a lot of Liberal Democrat members do not fully understand. Fringe meetings and exhibitors (from outside organisations) are a very useful source of income for the party – not an expense in anyway! They pay serious money to come to our conference. A good conference is also outward looking and welcoming to the widest range of visitors, exhibitors, charities, voluntary organisations, pressures groups, overseas visitors etc. Conference is not just a meeting of the faithful.

  • Barry Fleet 16th Sep '22 - 4:09pm

    Just cancelling is not a sensible option as it runs the risk of us disappearing from view, particularly as most of the press would be quite happy with that.
    Surely it’s possible for the party to come up with something makes sure that we remain visible!

  • Graham Jeffs 16th Sep '22 - 5:31pm

    Clearly we need to have a showcase of some sort. So far as physical conferences are concerned I remember flogging up to Blackpool and Llandudno from Surrey – as a passenger in a Riley Elf (i am 6ft 2″).

    Have we become too unadventurous in terms of venues? Is there some sort of fear that the media and outside organisations won’t be bothered to travel? There is an awful lot of country north of the Thames!

  • Mark Morris 16th Sep '22 - 5:50pm

    Mick Taylor states: “If we abandoned our fixation with having conferences in the SE”.

    I am not quite sure whether that claim is fair.

    I accept different starting dates can be used, but since 2010 I believe Autumn Federal Conferences have been held in:

    2010: Liverpool
    2011: Birmingham
    2012: Brighton
    2013: Glasgow
    2014: Glasgow
    2015: Bournemouth
    2016: Brighton
    2017: Bournemouth
    2018: Brighton
    2019: Bournemouth

    In terms of Spring conferences since 2010 venues have included Sheffield, Gateshead, York, Liverpool, Plymouth, Southport and Glasgow.

    Before 2010 a number of Autumn Conferences were held in Harrogate, but Blackpool and Eastbourne have also been used as well – in addition to use of Brighton and Bournemouth. Spring Federal Conferences before 2010 have also been held in Cardiff, Edinburgh, Southport and Nottingham.

    Obviously there has been a bit too much use of Brighton and Bournemouth over the years (although Bournemouth is in the county of Dorset – it is not part of the South East), but let’s not pretend that looked at in the round and over the years there has been an obsession of ‘fixation’ with conferences in London or the South East of England – in fact there has not been a Federal Autumn Conference ever held in London and claiming that Dorset is part of South East of England is simply inaccurate.

  • When I was on FCC I too wanted to know why Brighton and Bournemouth featured so often as venues for the Autumn Conference. It seems that, of all the venues able to hold an event of that size, they offered the best deals. I would love to go back to Liverpool but it priced itself out of the market. That is also the reason why we go back to York a lot for the Spring Conference – the justification is almost entirely financial.

  • Simon McGrath 17th Sep '22 - 9:11am

    @Mick Taylor : “If we abandoned our fixation with having conferences in the SE, we could almost certainly have an in person conference for 2-3 days in Birmingham, Glasgow, Leeds or Newcastle.”
    Its purely a matter of cost/size – there are no venues in those places which we can afford or which are big enough. The limited choices of places we go to is driven by that.

  • Thanks George; we need something well before next Spring which will help us engage with people outside the party membership and get us some media attention. Another possible way of achieving this is through the regional conferences, with Ed Davey and Layla Moran (who are the most likely to get media attention) making major speeches at each and the organisers making advance contact with national and local media.
    Messaging to the general public is now our key task, we are awash with policy and spend too much time on that in conferences; a few updated policies on major issues around the economy, welfare and education is all we need before the next general election.

  • David Chalmers 17th Sep '22 - 1:58pm

    Like many others who have commented on George’s article, I was disappointed but in the end fully supported the difficult decision to not hold our party conference this weekend. However I cannot accept postponing for 6 months our coming together to discuss the critical issues facing our country. We are in danger of making ourselves irrelevant to the national debate just when we need to be winning over potential supporters and presenting ourselves as a future partner in government.

    An online event does not need months of planning or be prohibitively costly. I know because last Autumn the Lib Dem European Group, which I Chair, held a series of 16 online events, including a national day – entitled the Lib Dem Conference on the Future of Europe – which enabled us to engage with the consultation taking place across Europe on the future direction of the EU, whilst allowing our members from the regions and nations of the UK to discuss the impact of Brexit on different industry sectors and aspects of our communities. This fed into our Europe policies, which have been debated and voted on at Conference . Pulling it all off it was a challenge. But we did it and what we achieved is regarded by sister parties as an example of how to consult with party members on major topics – surely with a bit of thought and planning we can put together an online national conference at little financial cost before the end of the year.

  • Mick Taylor 17th Sep '22 - 3:49pm

    So, 2/3 of our conferences are in the SE and it’s OK that 1/3 of them are not. We are supposed to be a federal party that covers all of the UK and 2/3 of our main conferences are in Brighton and/or Bournemouth. It is sometimes said that people in the SE won’t travel to ‘far flung’ parts of the UK, but we expect members from Scotland and Wales and the North of England to do so.

  • Nonconformistradical 17th Sep '22 - 7:55pm

    @Mick Taylor
    “It is sometimes said that people in the SE won’t travel to ‘far flung’ parts of the UK”
    This south-easterner certainly recalls attending a conference in Southport – can’t recall how long ago.

    Did you actually read Mary Reid’s comment at 8:20 pm 16 Sept. on the financial aspect?

  • Over the last decade when physical conferences were taking place two thirds of Autumn and Spring conferences have not been held in the South East. Also Bournemouth is not in the South East of England. Let’s seek a wider range of venues but let’s also have an accurate debate.

  • Neil James Sandison 18th Sep '22 - 3:08pm

    Suggest special winter crisis debate at the West Midlands Regional Conference on 19th November good platform for Ed and the team to promote our message ,Where there is a will there is always a way .

  • Peter Hirst 18th Sep '22 - 3:57pm

    A single day should be sufficien to focus the debates on issues of national importance. It would also allow us to get our message into the media and for prospective candidates to boost their campaigns. It would give us an advantage as being responsive to events while maintaining our much needed progressive campaigning.

  • Add me as another voice for a virtual conference. If it was good enough for us in the last two years, why not now?

  • If people feel strongly that we need a conference soon, and I think lots do, they should submit a request for a Special conference – An additional meeting of the conference that can be requisitioned by 2% of party members, in not fewer than 10% of local parties under the provisions of Article 6.3 of the Federal constitution.

    Of course they will need to organise and encourage their friends and colleagues to support it as well.

  • Jason Connor 19th Sep '22 - 11:43am

    I think it’s so important to meet in person not online. A face-to-face conference would garner far more press coverage. We had all those virtual conferences during Covid and they are not a substitute for meeting up in person. Since then people are physically returning to shops and some retail online operations are being scaled down. Conferences in person support the local economy of the town where they’re being held as well as the Party’s profile and policies. So please hold an in-person conference, not virtual reality.

  • You are right to suggest that the Liberal Democrats should hold a special winter conference. The two other main parties are going ahead with their conferences.

    The UK is facing political turbulence of a kind rarely witnessed in our history. All of this is taking place against the backdrop of a cost-of-living crisis, failings within the NHS and a faltering economy. Globally the challenges are significant and demand our attention, from the war in Ukraine, to the climate crisis. The current right wing Conservative government are testing the limits of our democracy and are too distracted to address the plethora of challenges that face the country.

    We need to be part of this debate to find the solutions to unify the country to come together and emerge from this economic and social crises, a stronger, fairer and more prosperous nation.

  • Julian Ingram 21st Sep '22 - 9:14am

    There seem to be two issues which we need to separate. The formal role within the party of a conference and getting media coverage. We will get media coverage if we have something interesting to say. A bland agenda with a lot of process won’t get it. I would suggest that:
    1. the bland stuff plus the important process bits gets moved online. It enables the widest reach on issues.
    2. We hold a oneday winter rally with one motion on the cost of living crisis and one on Ukraine. We hold it over a weekend preferably on Saturday to get sunday coverage and link into the sunday morning media round.
    We just need a distinctive radical motion!
    We could consider this for spring conference as well!!

  • It is easy to see the chaos of what is going on in the world as a series of individual events, all happening to occur at once, but there are wider trends going on based around the reversal of globalisation. I’ve been reading Peter Zeihan’s Book “The End of the world is just the beginning – Mapping the end of globalisation”

    Zeihan forecasted Russia’s full scale invasion of Ukraine by this year, back in 2014 in another book, where he saw this year as the last one where they had sufficient young men to call up to mount a serious invasion, as their population demographics are collapsing.

    Zeihan sees China in the most peril as is the most reliant on imports of food, fertiliser and energy, as well as being the world’s main assembler of low tech goods and components. All of this is threatened and it cannot sustain itself without this world system continuing. Meanwhile USA is re-shoring work at a rapid rate or bringing it to Mexico within NAFTA. He insists that China will not survive this decade as an entity and that no Chinese empire has lasted longer than this one at 70 years.

    We’ve got used to incredibly cheap goods and cheap food from cheap fertiliser, made from cheap gas and it’s all ending. Zeihan advises Corporates on their wider strategy and says 2019 will have been the best year ever. It seems sensible to get some re-shoring and farm support policies, plus to expand renewables.

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