A tale of two conferences

What a week it has been from arriving as a fresh faced first timer at Liberal Democrat Conference in Glasgow on Saturday after an epic 7 hour coach journey to finally being home and feeling a lot less sleep deprived.

I’m in a relatively unique position having been able to attend and take part in two different party political conferences. For the last two years, I attended and spoke at Labour Conference. In May of this year, I joined the Liberal Democrats. You can read more about that here.

I thought it might be interesting to talk about the main differences and similarities between both parties’ annual gatherings.

For the Liberal Democrats, Conference is formally opened before moving to wine and the conference rally. For Labour it’s much the same but a day later and then the fringes start. The Liberal Democrats discuss policy, and vote on motions published in advance with an opportunity to amend them should conference wish. In Labour they discuss up to 6 contemporary issues which are submitted by constituency parties. These general topics are voted on and then composited. There are votes at labour conferences, but never any debate or contentiousness – very different from the Liberal Democrats.

The 6 debates at labour conference are chosen by ballot. The trade union/socialist societies get to pick 3 and the constituencies get to pick the rest. However, the constituency groups are “whipped” by their regional officers to vote for what the unions want. So more often then not, only 3 actual motions are debated. And I use the word debate in the loosest possible sense. There is a mover (usually a trade union general secretary) and a seconder (usually a constituency member). The “debate” that then follows contains members picked from the floor to speak on the vague subject. When you hear the votes of the ballots announced you will notice that the numbers seem odd. The trade union ballot cast by one member of that union – count for the number of affiliated members in that union. So roughly 3 million votes get cast to decide what is debated. The same applies for constituencies, where a single delegate voting counts for all their members in that constituency. At Liberal Democrat Conference, the voting rep’s card counts as just one vote.

At Liberal Democrat conference we submit speakers’ cards and the chair and the aide pick cards to ensure a balanced debate on the motion. Again Labour conference is very different. Watch a debate at Labour conference this week, and I am pretty certain the speakers called will go something like this: a prospective parliamentary candidate, a trade unionist and then someone from a constituency hand-picked and ensured that their speech is “on message.” I have spoken twice at Labour conference. If you want to see them they are here and here. My Liberal Democrat conference speech is here.

The similarities between the two events are what you might expect. The fringe events are similar (RSPCA beer and curry anyone?) and many of the exhibition stands are the same (BBC, Royal Mail etc). The conference bar is the hub of socialising, MPs being around and about. However Liberal Democrat conference featured a real ale bar (hurrah!) and the MPs are much more accessible and not surrounded by their staffers. At Labour conference it’s much more difficult to meet MPs and the key players in the party.

Labour conference lacks is at best democracy lite whereas Liberal Democrat conference is and remains our party’s policy forming body and we should be proud of that.

See you in York!

* Sarah Brown is a Liberal Democrat activist who lives in Manchester.

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12 Comments

  • At the Labour conference, the chair appears to select speakers according to where they are and what they’re waving, but still comes up with “a prospective parliamentary candidate, a trade unionist and then someone from a constituency hand-picked and ensured that their speech is ‘on message.’”

  • Ed Wilson

    I watched it live and not everyone was a PPC

    The Labour Party membership is made up of quite a lot of people who are members of TU as well, and all members are members of a CLP.

    I guess that quite a lot of PPC go to conference as well, that makes 660 of them of which about half have a good chance of winning – unlike the LD

    I didn’t think the Q&A was particularly on-message. I think Miliband would have preferred not to have discussed free energy prices, renationalisation and being pushed hard on Green issues

  • Eddie Sammon 25th Sep '13 - 7:49pm

    Welcome to the party! I hope you have found it welcoming since you joined in May. Yes, our conference is more democratic than Labour’s, but I don’t think our level of internal democracy is anything to be proud of anymore. In the year 2013 I actually think it looks worse than giving members no votes on policy.

  • Thanks for your comments guys 🙂 everyone who speaks and trust me I know will have their speech either vetted or indeed written for them. I know as I have had a speech vetted and indeed a speech written for me. Watch them. See if you can guess which was written and which was vetted 🙂

  • peter tyzack 26th Sep '13 - 9:04am

    Eddie Sammon, I hope you will communicate your concerns to FCC ([email protected]) so that they can be addressed. Perhaps publish here the response you get from them. Our greatest plus point is our internal democracy, so if it’s slipping it must be challenged

  • I’m astounded to left Labour to join the Lib Dems. I’ll read your reasons but I find it baffling!

  • Eddie Sammon,
    I’m very interested in internal democracy as lack of it was the cause of my leaving membership – I felt, and still do, that the leaders of the Lib Dems are too busy pushing their agendas and not listening to members. The Lib Dems need a method of bringing together those of us outside the party who vote Lib Dem but cannot support the way the leadership doesn’t listen to our concerns. Yes, sometimes we agree and sometimes not. We cannot write on every blog etc that we agree about every issue but on the negatives – many of us saw what was happening at the beginning of the coalition, warned that we must have a distinctive way of maintaining the Lib Dem principles, and we were ignored. It was all about solidarity with government and we were now in it. Sorry, I didn’t join a coalition and how can anyone join something agreed behind closed doors? An ongoing democratic forum for the party will bring many back, I think, and we should be able to use the internet to connect with them and accredit them in some way. And use the voices of the many who are outside but voting with you. As most of us live in constituencies dominated by one of the major parties, the internet should give voting Lib Dems a voice which conference cannot.

  • Eddie Sammon 26th Sep '13 - 1:44pm

    Thanks Peter and Robdn for getting in touch. Peter, yes I might send them an email, but I might make it part of a proper campaign so I need a bit more time to decide first.

    Robdn, yes, I really think a proper democratic movement would be a wonderful and exciting thing. All authority comes from the people and there are many things being done at the moment that are against the public’s wishes.

    We have tried the approach of saying “elect a representative every four or five years”, but it’s not enough because on too many occasions they appear to do what they like because they know they can get away with it.

  • John Clough 26th Sep '13 - 3:50pm

    I wouldn’t quibble with the notion that the Lib Dem Conference is more democratic than the Labour one but how is it democratic for someone to be elected as a councillor for one party and then join another half way through her tenure? If Sarah is so passionate about democracy then she ought to ask the people who elected her whether they approve of her decision to defect. Not to do so seems profoundly undemocratic. This goes for all defectors of whatever political hue.

  • @ John Clough

    I absolutely agree. No offence, but I tend to think those that make a big public show of switching from one party to another are primarily attention seekers.

  • I am glad that Sarah Brown prefers the Liberal Democrat conference to the Labour one. However I can’t understand why she found herself rolling her eyes every time Ed Mililand announced something and ever more thinking “I agree with Nick”. So I am interested in knowing which new policies of Labour she doesn’t agree with and which Nick led policies she agrees with.

    I guess that the first one (women) was vetted and the second (Living Wage) was written.

    However if Sarah goes to conference in 2014 or spring 2015 I expect she will discover that nearly every other speakers is a PPC!

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