Autumn Conference: What did Federal Board decide?

We have known for some months that the Federal Board was going to decide at its May meeting what to do with Federal Conference in Brighton this Autumn. Last night they discussed the matter looking at feedback from party committees and staff as well as a consultation exercise carried out in March.

They had a lot to consider. What if Rishi Sunak called the General Election and we ended up having our Conference in the short campaign? What opportunities were there from having Conference just before the General Election if he didn’t? And what damage could it inflict on our campaign if we did not take the opportunity to set out our stall when the other parties would at their own events? What impact would two major events in quick succession, a conference and a General Election, have on staff?

So what did they decide?  Well, Conference is going to happen – sort of. It’s going to be shorter. It will now only run from Saturday 14 to Monday 16th September and technically will be a special Conference.

Party President Mark Pack explained on the party website:

After extensive feedback from members, the Federal Board has agreed a plan for our Autumn Federal Conference.

We agreed that it would be in the best interests of the party to hold such an event if possible, and that due to the unusually close proximity between the event and the next Westminster general election, the maximum benefit would come from amending our normal conference plans so that it can be tailored to the requirements, opportunities and risks of an event so close to a general election.

These include making it a 2.5 day event (14-16 September 2024 in Brighton), providing the best trade-off between a shorter conference lowering costs and staff time while also preserving enough time to maximise the benefits of conference, including commercial income. The Tuesday rather than the Saturday would be dropped in order to maximise the chances for members to participate.

The event will include exhibition, fringe, training as well as items in the main hall. More details will be published in due course as the details are finalised. There will be online viewing available, but unfortunately due to the resource requirements, online voting will not be available.

Technically, this will be a Special Conference so that we can avoid time being taken up on lower priority items just ahead of a general election, such as constitutional amendments. If a general election is called just before conference is due, then it will be cancelled.

Note – as with any Board decision, this one is subject to scrutiny by the Federal Council.

There is an interesting distinction between a special Conference and Federal Conference. Federal Board sets the agenda for a special Conference, not the Federal Conference Committee. It’s a change that some members will undoubtedly see as a power grab.  There is also a danger that Federal Board gets all the power while Federal Conference Committee gets all of the blame.

The lack of online voting will also be disappointing to some. It’s become such an important part of Conference which enables people from all around the country to participate in our sovereign policy making body.  I’d be keen to explore getting that re-included.

Many members will, though, be delighted that our annual gathering, even if it’s only a sort-of Conference is actually going ahead.

Pre-election Conferences are not usually the spiciest. You wouldn’t, for example, debate your most hotly controversial topics (nuclear weapons anyone?) five minutes before a General Election and most people accept that. They are usually a procession of our wonderful PPCs talking about how each policy would benefit their constituency. And who could grudge them? So we won’t be missing out on any good old-fashioned barneys over policy.

While the event in Brighton in September will look to all the world like Conference, it will be missing some of the key aspects. I suspect most members will be content with that though.

Federal Council has a few days to decide whether to “call in” this decision for scrutiny. With something as major as this, I think that FC should to make sure that more pairs of eyes look at the options available. As a member of Federal Council, I’d be keen to ask the Board to look again at online voting, but I’m not sure we will get the chance to change any of the detail. We will, of course, make our feelings known and if there are aspects that you would like us to think about, please say so in the comments below.

This has been an immensely difficult decision for the Board to make, with lots of factors, particularly the impact on staff, to consider. If only there were a law ensuring as far as possible that General Elections were in the May in the fifth year following the previous one, they wouldn’t have had to. Oh wait, there was. The Fixed Term Parliament Act, a Lib Dem contribution to the coalition era which was got rid off by the Tories.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Big thanks to everyone involved for all the work put in on this – I just hope Sunak isn’t going to make it all pointless this evening. I presume the decision could be reversed easily enough if The PM does go for July 4th ?

  • David Warren 22nd May '24 - 2:17pm

    Looks like the right decision in the circumstances.

    Hopefully there will need to be a further special conference to debate a confidence and supply arrangement following the General Election!

  • Katharine Pindar 22nd May '24 - 10:44pm

    Surely our Federal Conference in September should now be the full length, not cut to two and a half days. We will have a great deal to discuss and positioning and policies to decide in our relations with the new government. I have written to our President to ask for the full length again, three and a half days.. If hopefully we will be the third party nationally again, our voice will be better heard, and we will be better listened to if we take the opportunities. And there should be better chances of fundraising too.

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