Change when we hold Autumn Conference

Like every member of the party, I was sorry that the party Conference had to be cancelled because of the Queen’s sad death.

But it was the right decision. Conference Chair Nick da Costa and the whole team, volunteers and staff, deserve our thanks for taking that decision and dealing with the massive practical consequences.

This has sparked ideas about next year. Should Spring Conference 2023 be earlier? Longer? An extra conference? These questions were discussed in an interesting special Lib Dem Podcast.

But this may be the right time to take a big step back and reconsider when we hold Autumn Conference every year.

The choice of date impacts on the success of the Conference, which is an important tool in achieving the party’s aims. 

Conference helps us elect more Liberal Democrats by networking members, building relationships and team spirit, sharing know-how through training, enriching our policy platform, interaction between Lib Dem parliamentarians and grassroots members, providing a media showcase for our Leader and key spokespeople and the forum for members to exercise democratic control of the party.

The first day of Autumn Conference has been as late as 25 September (1988 and 2020) and as early as 9 September (1989, 1991) with 4 October in exceptional circumstances (2014). The established pattern is that it is a week after the TUC Conference and a week before the Labour Conference, with the Conservative Conference the week after that.  

2014’s Lib Dem Conference was after the Conservative Conference. The Scottish Referendum was on 18 September. Our usual slot would have been in the days leading up to the poll. Key campaigners needed to be on the frontline helping to save the Union. In addition, there would have been no media coverage of our Conference because of media obligations to political balance during an election/referendum period.

Holding our 2014 Conference after the Conservatives’ event caused great annoyance to the Tories, who think they have a divine right to the last word of conference season.

Recently, the Conservatives have abused their power to change the rules of engagement. 

For decades there was an understanding that Parliament will recess for all three party conferences. The Tories have changed that. Parliament would have been sitting this week (if it were not for the Queen’s death) meaning Lib Dem MPs would have had to travel up and down from Conference to Parliament for important debates and votes on the cost of living and energy crisis. This is a major disruption that Labour and Conservatives conferences remain shielded from.

Conservative whips would have tabled something important for when Ed was due to begin his Leader’s Speech.

No-one should be surprised at Conservatives playing the system to engineer advantage for themselves and disadvantage for the bravehearts who challenge their rule.

They aren’t rigid about keeping things as they always have been. Neither should we be.

We should actively consider two new options for holding Lib Dem Conference:

Option 1) Between the Labour and Conservative Conferences.

Labour finish on Weds (this year 28 September). Tories don’t start until Sunday (2 October).

Our four days could be the Weds-Saturday or Thursday-Sunday.

Option 2) Overlapping with the Conservative Conference.

Their conference is Sunday (2 October) to Thursday (5 October).

We could meet Saturday-Tues as we usually do, or other obvious options.

Either of these steps will greatly annoy our two rivals. That it is not the only reason to do it.

These dates will be in recess, so the parliamentary agenda cannot disrupt our Conference.

Politically, it would give us a new facility to react to the Labour Conference and underline how our policies are often bolder and better than Labour’s. Our attacks on the Conservative record would be fresher in people’s mind they are with the current long, 12 day gap between our Conference and the theirs.

Would the media come? Let’s be frank, since 2015 media attendance has been much reduced and whatever the date is, seeking to rebuild media interest must be a priority.

If we go for Option 1 media resources will be as available as they are now.

If we go for Option 2, with an overlap between us and the Tories there might be a limited issue. The broadcasters have enough teams to cover two places at once. Some “senior reporters” would be at the Conservative Conference but if the BBC political editor reports from the Tories and their deputy or another colleague reports from us, it doesn’t matter very much. And it’s the pictures that count.

In fact, making changes like when we hold our conference may help get journalists’ attention. Many of them think, rightly or wrongly, we are going through the motions year on year, doing the same thing at the same time in the same places, boring as beige. Changing stuff gets attention for a party in Opposition.  

Booking a venue should not be an issue. We tend to use different places than the Tories (Brighton/Bournemouth/Glasgow versus Birmingham/Manchester). 

After 24 years as an active party member I feel I have a sense of the mind of Lib Dem members. We can, dare I say it, be a bit conservative about the organisation of Conference. That’s understandable because it is a lifelong fixture of many of our calendars. For some, it would be psychologically akin to moving Christmas.

But in this area it may be time to change our approach and pitch our tent right in the middle of the schedule, better placed to take over the whole show.


* Antony Hook was a Liberal Democrat MEP for South East England (2019) and has practised as a barrister since 2003. He is currently Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group on Kent County Council.

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  • Jenny Barnes 20th Sep '22 - 3:39pm

    Why not hold it in the summer parliamentary recess? MPs seem to do pretty well for holidays, after all, and it would be well away from any risk of competition and or disruption from the other 2 large english parties. Or must we all prepare to get the harvest in?

  • Press/media will say they need a gap between conferences to move equipment/people around and give the journalists/team a break. Probably true for exhibitors set up and even fringe. They also wouldn’t bother to cover us if we clashed with the Tories.

  • @ Antony Hook “For decades there was an understanding that Parliament will recess for all three party conferences”.

    That may be, Mr Hook, but, I hope I’ll be allowed to remind you that, if you count the Lib Dems days these days, there are now four main parties in the House of Commons.

  • Michael Bukola 20th Sep '22 - 6:43pm

    Is it me or are we threatening to surrender our tactical ‘advantage’ as front runners in ‘getting our messages out first’ and ‘setting the agenda’. It is not quid pro quo from the media perspective also given that political journalists get the opportunity to ‘warm-up’ and ‘test’ their media lines instructed by their editors. Choosing Option 1 means we lose that advantage and potentially move into a new scenario of rebuttals from Labour spin machines where Leader’s speeches are changed mid-way through Conference to avert a potential media storm. Finally, Option 2 rather presupposes a position of political deference to the Conservatives should they be in power or not.

  • Peter Davies 20th Sep '22 - 9:52pm

    There’s no absolute requirement to have it in the Autumn. For many people, the overriding factor would be the availability of cheap accommodation. Even Brighton is quite affordable in November.

  • Antony raises an interesting question, and Peter makes an interesting suggestion about the summer. I do not have an immediate answer, but will make some observations about the options:
    – It is not immediately obvious that overlapping with another party conference would reduce media coverage. As Antony says, the major broadcasters and papers have enough journalists to cover both if they wish. If we have sessions on the same day, they might feel a greater obligation to cover both for ‘balance’.
    – accommodation in seaside locations will be more expensive in the summer, but not all locations are in holiday locations (the Tory conference this year is in Birmingham).
    – Conference centres and entertainment venues are generally less busy in the summer, so may be cheaper.
    – Other options may be possible in summer for both venues and accommodation, such as universities.
    (with apologies to both FCC and the Conference Office, who are already busy planning the next two conferences, and therefore may have limited capacity to consider ‘radical’ alternatives)

  • David Evans 21st Sep '22 - 8:33am

    Yet another article on LDV supporting the powers that be in their decision to retreat from the battle and do nothing to fight Liz Truss and the Conservatives at this critical time. No debate on a windfall tax – we will say nothing. No debate on Tax cuts and a panicky dash for growth that will only stoke up inflation – we will say nothing. No debate on the Crisis in Ukraine – We will say nothing. Big bonuses for bankers who got us into the mess in the first place – We will say nothing.

    What happened to that can do, ‘Towards the sound of Gunfire’ party that Jo Grimond and Paddy Ashdown led?

    We need a conference to take the attack to the Conservatives and we need it very soon. Submit a request to the party for a Special Conference now.

  • @David Evans – members can summon a special meeting of Federal Conference – see Article 6.3 of the Federal Constitution. If you feel strongly about this, perhaps you might start collecting names in support.

  • @ David Evans You’re not alone in thinking that, David. I was in Central Hall to hear and witness Jo Grimond when he made that speech at the start of the 1964 election. The atmosphere was electric.

    Of course successful armies need ammunition, good weapons, committed foot soldiers, good officers and inspiring competent Generals to lead them.

  • I seem to recall a conference in Nottingham.
    A short emergency conference with the two main issues of the cost of living crisis and the climate crisis as the cental focus seems to me to be a ‘do it now’ option. All the media available to cover it and room to make real impact is an idea that makes absolute sense.

  • Overlapping, or being too adjacent, to another conference would be an issue for exhibitors or fringe organisers. Although we also have fewer of those than we did, many organisations will only have one set of stand materials, one set of conference organisers, and they can’t be in two places and so would prioritise the bigger parties.

  • Frances Mckenzie 21st Sep '22 - 1:50pm

    Paul raises the point that some exhibitors and fringe organisers ( those that attend all the Party Conferences ) would find it difficult to attend if there was an overlap in Conferences ; if an overlap was agreed upon then there be less diversity surely ?

  • Laurence Cox 21st Sep '22 - 2:20pm

    We do need to be more creative in thinking about how we organise our conferences. At the moment, because of our cancelled conference, we have a backlog of policy debates that have to be cleared before the manifesto for the next General Election is written. Although the General Election has to be no later than 25th January 2025, it is unlikely to be before the autumn of 2023, because the Tories will want to take advantage of the favourable boundary changes which will come in from July 2023. So our next Spring Conference will be crucial for, at the very least, our pre-manifesto paper (F41).

    So let us ask, what needs to take place in person and what could be online. Certainly all the Federal Committee Reports (F2, F3, F4, F14, F24, F25, F26, F38), the Constitutional amendments (F7, F8, F35) the standing order amendments (F32, F33) and Business motions (F36, F37, F39) could be dealt with in online sessions as could the consultative sessions. We might like to schedule this for, say, the weekend preceding a physical or hybrid conference, freeing up the conference for policy motions at times when the TV cameras will be on us.

  • David Evans 21st Sep '22 - 2:23pm

    @Simon Pike – Indeed, what you suggest is what I am doing. I hope you and many others will realise the urgency of the situation – clearly it is an opportunity that we cannot afford to miss. Unless of course the campaigning political party once led by Joe Grimond and Paddy Ashdown is now just a bureaucracy that would rather stay at home and give Liz Truss and the Conservatives a free ride.

    But surely that has to be unthinkable?

  • Well said, David Evans, twice above!!!

  • Neil James Sandison 22nd Sep '22 - 10:27am

    We already have a regional conference booked for November 19th in an easy to reach venue in the West Midlands so we have a viable platform at the heart of the road and rail network .Agree the debate would need to be targeted on key issues but it would enable members to participate . What we cant cover in November we can debate at the Spring conference .

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