Conference!

Over a period of more than 30 years I have attended a lot of conferences including those of the Anti Apartheid Movement, Communication Workers Union, Trade Union Congress, Labour Party and most recently the Liberal Democrats. In my time as a CWU activist I sat for a term on its conference arrangements committee. My first Lib Dem conference was in 2012 and I really enjoyed the experience. I was particularly struck by the democratic nature of it. One delegate, one vote, no executive trying to sway us and no top table packed with party big wigs.

However, as we approach another year of conferences, I want to initiate a discussion on possible changes that could make things even better.

The first issue I would like to raise is whether two conferences a year are needed. The Spring Conference is a pretty truncated affair, this year I believe there are just eight debates, making it quite an expensive event for very little actual purpose.

Which brings me to my second point that of funding for those attending conference. When I first decided to go, I was surprised that the expectation is that attendees fund themselves even when their local parties may have thousands of pounds sitting in their bank account. As things currently stand Liberal Democrat conferences are for those who can afford them. As an unpaid carer, I only got there by the skin of my financial teeth.

Thirdly, there are to many of what I call pointless debates at conference where a lot of time is spent discussing motions that everybody basically agrees on, whilst more contentious ones are not chosen.

Finally, there are far too many keynote speeches from leading figures in the party which, of course, reduces debating time. Is this to get TV coverage I ask myself? I know from discussions on social media that this and the selection of motions is a particular source of frustration for other members.

Having made the points above I would therefore like to make the following suggestions;

  • The party should undertake a review of the Spring Conference this to include its location, duration, content and whether it is needed at all.
  • The assumption that all Conference attendees can afford to pay their own way should cease, with local parties in particular providing financial support to those who need it.
  • Federal Conference Committee to review its criteria for selecting motions with the aim of putting on the agenda those submissions that will generate a genuine debate amongst members.
  • The only keynote speeches at conferences to be the leader and a maximum of two others throughout the duration to allow the maximum amount of debating time.

I hope these suggestions will generate a healthy discussions both here on Lib Dem Voice and in the wider party.

* David is a member of Horsham and Crawley Liberal Democrats

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12 Comments

  • “The first issue I would like to raise is whether two conferences a year are needed.”

    It’s a money raiser, David….

  • Daniel Walker 29th Jan '20 - 12:31pm

    Thirdly, there are to many of what I call pointless debates at conference where a lot of time is spent discussing motions that everybody basically agrees on, whilst more contentious ones are not chosen.

    The problem here is that, even when we all/most agree, we still need to pass policy, and who gets to decide which ones are non-contentious and don’t need much of a debate?

    Granted that even as a relative newbie myself, I can usually spot the ones that are going to sail through, there still needs to be a mechanism by which non-contentiousness can be challenged¹, and if something is challenged, what do you do? There’s probably not time to debate it that conference, so would it get in automatically to the next one?

    The point I am making is that it’s non-trivial, not that it’s a bad idea per se.

    1. Something like “x members representing at least y constituency parties and/or SAO/AOs must object by 11pm on the day before”, I would assume.

  • Kevin White 29th Jan '20 - 1:18pm

    I agree David. I think a full and comprehensive review of the Conference setup and the way policy is decided needs to be undertaken. For a party that calls itself democratic and says it encourages members involvement, the current system is anything but conductive to achieving those worthy ends.

  • James Belchamber 29th Jan '20 - 1:38pm

    Many Local Parties can hardly pay their website hosting bill – expecting them to support local members wishing to attend conference just wouldn’t work. Conference is also an income generator for the party, so shutting it down will cost money.

    The question that needs to be asked is why we still expect people to attend conference to vote on motions.

  • David Warren 29th Jan '20 - 2:40pm

    @KevinWhite Thanks

    @JamesBelchamber It may well the case that some local parties are hard up but some are not. I used to belong to one that had over ten thousand pounds in its accounts and a regular income from investments.

    Also conference isn’t just about passing motions it’s also about the experience of attending a major party event and members feeling that they belong to our Liberal family.

  • Gordon Lishman 29th Jan '20 - 5:23pm

    Spring Conference has a net cost to the overall Party budget.
    Abolition of Spring Conf is a regular debate, so far not attracting the support of anything like the necessary two-thirds support.
    Is the suggestion that ALL Local Parties should be obliged to pay for reps from their party? Regardless of how many? Means-tested (either the members or the local parties? Administered by whom?
    Like it or not, a lot of attendees WANT to hear the set pieces – note differential attendance.
    Best way to get more interesting motions is to write them – preferably on new, interesting and controversial topics.
    I think a lot of your concerns are directed at ordinary members and their expectations at least as much as party managers.

  • The Conference Access Fund offers financial assistance to people to attend Conference, and also supports those with disabilities. See https://www.libdemvoice.org/cant-afford-to-go-to-conference-59650.html.
    You might also like to know that Lib Dem Voice makes a substantial donation to this fund each year, paid for out of our income from ads. So thanks to all of you for boosting that fund simply by visiting LDV.

  • David Warren 29th Jan '20 - 11:21pm

    @GordonLishman

    Local parties should not assume that all members can afford to attend and should offer assistance where they can. The access fund should also be highlighted.

    We aren’t going to be able to break out of our ‘party of the middle classes’ ghetto if we don’t support those on lower or no incomes.

  • David Warren 30th Jan '20 - 10:54am

    Thanks John.

    As I said in the original post Lib Dem conferences are a vast improvement on the Labour and trade union ones I attended previously. However there is scope to make them even better which is what my observations and recommendations are designed to do.

    I really hope some members of the FCC have read and followed the comments on this thread.

  • David Evans 30th Jan '20 - 2:18pm

    Gordon, I am afraid I am going to disagree totally with you on this one. Conference motions are anodyne beyond belief, wordcrafted to beyond the point of intelligibility, neither focused or inspiring, and certainly not the sort of stuff that would ever get noticed in the real world.

    Just one real example – from the Windrush motion that went to conference in September 2018

    Conference believes that:
    b) The blame for the recent shameful Home Office approach to the Windrush generation lies in the policy established by the Home Secretary in office from 12th May 2010 to July 13th 2016,
    c) …

    So Who or What is to blame? – The policy,
    Who ‘established’ the policy – The Home Secretary,
    Which Home Secretary – the one in office from 12th May 2010 to July 13th 2016.

    No! No! and No!

    The Blame lay squarely with Theresa May, who promoted, implemented and oversaw it for six years.

    I submitted an amendment to FCC, to make it clear what it was talking about, as follows

    b) The blame for the malicious attacks on the Windrush generation lies with Theresa May, the Home Secretary responsible for the “Hostile environment”, who should hang her head in shame at the consequences of her actions.

    FCC rejected it as a mere ‘debating point’.

    FCC is a fundamental part of the problem.

  • When Local Parties elected representatives to conference they should have helped with the costs of going, but now every member can go, Local Parties should not be given the responsibility of helping fund their members to go. Having a central fund to help poor people is the correct mechanism.

    Mary Reid, the conditions for claiming expenses include, “Those claiming expenses are expected to search for the cheapest travel and accommodation options (e.g. unless the distance is prohibitive it would be expected party members book a coach). Claims for petrol costs will be considered if there is a legitimate need (e.g. disability).” If instead of these rules, the rules just stated that a case has to be made out for the mode of transport and choice of hotel and room then I would have applied to the Access Fund for last conference. Also a person has to pay the costs first and then they receive the money after conference when they provide the receipts. This will be a problem for some people who either don’t have the money or can get credit for the period between when they pay and the Federal Party pays them the grant.

    Do you know how much is granted for each conference and how many people it funds?

    There is a big issue with how motions and amendments are selected and rejected. If each motion had a person to represent it at the FCC meeting where motions are selected and motions WERE composited, this would help. This would mean motions wouldn’t be rejected for poor drafting but improved at the meeting. The length of debate should not be set until the amendments and separate votes have been selected. Again each amendment and separate vote should have a representative at the FCC meeting where these amendments are selected and composited. We need to change the way FCC operates so compositing takes place which includes a representative of each motion and amendment. Also FCC should not be able to reject any motion or amendment because it is expensive. It is down to conference to reject things if they think we shouldn’t be doing them, not FCC to reject them because they have issues about how something would be financed.

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