Accessing Conference

I love conference.

My first Federal Conference was at Harrogate in Spring 2009 (a lovely venue that we’ve not been back to since) and the buzz I got from being around my fellow Lib Dems from around the country was great and inspired me to go to many more. In fact, it probably inspired me to be involved in the party in other ways as well. I’ve been to a number of conferences since from Bournemouth to Sheffield and each one is different and interesting in its own way. When I started work as a school teacher in 2014 though, my ability to find the time to go to Conference dropped off. With the exception of a special visit to Brighton in 2016 specifically to support my fantastic friend Hywel ap Dafydd and his motion to promote NHS funding for PrEP medication, I haven’t been to conference for quite a few years.

Fast forward to last summer and I gave up my job as a school teacher and returned to university to study a masters programme in Data Science, AI and the ethics and regulation of AI (or ‘Responsible Data Science’ for short). This has afforded me the time to be more involved with the party again. I was delighted to be elected to Federal Policy Committee last year – my first time elected to any federal role after nearly two decades as a member.

Giving up work and returning to full time studies does have one big drawback though: finances. This year has not been without it’s financial challenges for everyone, but adjusting to life without my teacher’s salary has been difficult. As much as I love conference, I really felt that I couldn’t justify the cost to go this year. That is, until I was advised to apply for the Conference Access Fund. The application process was so simple and Susie Murray at HQ was very friendly and helpful as well.

From the fund I was able to claim £45 a night towards accommodation costs, I could have claimed travel costs as well. As someone who has had mental health difficulties for years I also qualified for a claim as a disabled member in the access fund as well, which increased my accommodation claim by a further £45 per night, taking me to £90 per night for accommodation. The rates for Autumn 2023 have already been published and include an uplift to £55 for the basic accommodation cost.

Being granted an award under the access fund literally allowed me to attend conference this year for the first time since 2016. But the big question – was conference worth it after all this time?

You bet it was! Being a Liberal Democrat can be a lonely existence at times. Being at conference for the weekend was such an enthusing experience. Whether talking to people I’ve known for years or people I just met in York last weekend, it really did feel like being among friends everywhere I went. The debates in the auditorium were excellent, I particularly enjoyed Friday evening’s fringe meeting on AI and Democracy (definitely relevant to my current masters programme!) and for me the best bit was the people. Bumping into old friends was brilliant. While there was obviously some sadness, as Jeremy alluded to in his piece before conference, not to see old friends who are no longer with us (Erlend – conference will never be the same without you), but there was also something truly exciting about making new connections and appreciating the wonderful talent we have in our party.

Whether you’ve not been to conference before or if, like me, you’ve not been for years, I can’t recommend it enough and I can’t believe I left it so long since I last went. If, like me this year, your finances are a bit strained definitely consider applying for support though the access fund. Conference is where our policies are decided, it includes vital training and debates and for all these reasons the more people who go and the more diverse the attendance, the better. Lastly, if you were one of those who donated to the access fund: thank you, it really made a difference.


* Luke Richards has been a member of the Liberal Democrats since 2004 and served as Constituency Organiser to Cambridge from 2010-2012 and General Election agent in Birmingham Edgbaston in 2019. He was elected to Federal Policy Committee in November 2022.

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  • Laurence Cox 24th Mar '23 - 4:42pm

    Luke is writing about being able to afford to attend Conference and it is good that the Party has an Access fund to allow people in his financial position to take a full part in Conference. However there is another group, those who attended online, who had fewer options. We know that they were able to vote, because after every vote in the Hall there was a minute or more’s delay while the online vote completed before the session chair announced the overall result. Because there was no projection screen as part of the stage set as we have had in previous years, even before Covid, there was no way that anyone attending online could speak to conference or for the audience in the Hall to see the result of the online vote. These are issues that FCC should aim to fix for our Autumn conference if we are to improve inclusivity.

  • Luke Richards 24th Mar '23 - 5:45pm

    @Laurence – that’s a very good point. As I was on my way to York at the weekend I envisaged the hybrid conference as having people speaking remotely on the screen. In the event it didn’t actually occur to me that nobody spoke from online. That’s definitely would improve access, thanks for raising it.

  • Sam Barratt 24th Mar '23 - 7:44pm

    It is great to read your experience Luke! I hope it encourages those who are able to consider donating to the access fund to do so (

    As a member of FCC, I 100% agree with Laurence about looking at how to improve the hybrid elements of conference – the screens which we have had at (some) conferences in the past do come with a not insignificant price tag but it is something I really hope we can look at again. I would personally love to see people being able to take part in conference in different ways – not necessarily through live speeches even: we could test having prerecorded video submissions or displaying images or written engagements.

  • Luke Richards 25th Mar '23 - 11:28pm

    @Sam Barratt – those are some fantastic ideas for being inclusive of members accessing conference remotely.

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