Confessions of an FCC virgin


Liverpool was my first conference as a member of the Federal Conference Committee (FCC), having been elected at the end of last year. The experience confirmed my impression that Liberal Democrats do conference really rather well.

FCC is responsible for all aspects of the spring and autumn federal conferences, but the day-to-day management is carried out by the very efficient conference team at HQ, headed up by Lucy Hope, who is about to take maternity leave.  The committee sets the strategic direction, and approves the final decisions about venues and registration fees, but the bulk of the work is done by Lucy’s team, including managing the fringes, exhibition and stewarding.

The main task of the committee itself is to plan the agenda, which is, of course, unique amongst the major parties, and to then manage it at conference. This requires some careful time planning, and conference goers will know that we are pretty good as sticking to the timings in the agenda.

On a Saturday in January we gathered for a lengthy meeting. We started by agreeing on the number of set speeches (and who to ask) and on the slots for items other than debates, such as Nick Clegg’s Q&A. That left a fixed amount of time for motions, including an emergency motion. We had received 28 motions, one of which was on the Manifesto and was automatically included. We agreed the time needed for each of the remaining 27 motions, which we then had to whittle down to five.

At my first FCC meeting in December I had asked for clarification on which items on the agenda were confidential. In practice the only items that are confidential are commercially sensitive information about the negotiations with venues, plus anything that that comes under Data Protection regulations. Along with Zoë O’Connell and a couple of other members, I had campaigned for election to FCC on greater transparency, so armed with that information Zoë blogged a detailed account of which motions were accepted and why the others were rejected. As she pointed out, any motions that were not fully formed by that stage were rejected, because there was no time for further discussion with the proposers. It is pretty essential not to leave things to the last moment, but to get drafting advice well before the deadline.

FCC met again for two and a half hours last Friday afternoon in Liverpool. This time our task was to decide on which amendments, emergency motions and topical issues to accept. Once again, Zoë has done a detailed analysis of the decisions.  Badly written or incomplete amendments were rejected. On this occasion many of the amendments were drafted in to the original motion, and we only included for debate those where some further discussion would be useful.

Then there was the actual chairing to worry about. As a new member I wasn’t expected to chair any debates this time, but I will have to in September, so I attended a training session.  Each chair has a platform aide, who sits next to them, and a hall aide, who sits near the speakers’ table. If the chair wants to get a message to someone in the hall, then this is passed via the platform aide to the hall aide who goes to find them. My main fear was that I would be asked to find someone I didn’t know.

Some time before a motion is debated the chair and aides meet up to select speakers, and more time sheets appear. Speakers really should submit cards in plenty of time – at least half a day before – to get the best chance of being called. We don’t take any cards once the debate has started. Speaker’s cards are rejected if they do not explain what they want to speak about, or why they should be called. The aim is to construct a debate that is balanced in terms of opinions for and against, topics covered and the diversity of speakers.

I also acted as platform aide for Norman Lamb’s speech, which meant I had to be at the rehearsal at 8am on Sunday morning. In the circumstances, I didn’t grumble.

Apologies if you thought this post would be more racy than it is. But I do know that some members get very excited over standing orders ….

* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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  • Hi Mary, Interesting report and maybe it will encourage others to have a go. You did not say that it can be hard work. You probably just take these things in your stride. It is 20 years since I was on the FCC and I found it heavy going at times. So a genuine ‘thank you’ to you and the other volunteers on the FCC who do a good job.

    A bit of feedback from someone who sat at home and tried to keep up with what was happening. I did not see or hear or read a report of a speech by one ordinary delegate. The press coverage was very, very limited.

    I guess some people will have found MP Ministers making set-piece 15 minutes speeches fascinating. Not sure if the average voter would have done — for those of us outside the conference a 15 minute speech might end up being a 10 second clip on a TV News programme. These set-piece speeches do not result in anyone voting for us. So what are they for other than to massage the egos of MPs ?

    So a plea for the future – could FCC please arrange the next conference as if ordinary delegates are worth listening to. 🙂

  • Thanks John. At the moment I’m enjoying it a lot so it doesn’t seem like hard work though it is demanding. We must get together and compare our experiences some time.

    In fact, most of the speakers on the stage were ordinary delegates. There were five set piece speeches – Danny Alexander, Jo Swinson, Vince Cable, Norman Lamb and Nick Clegg, totalling 1 hour 40 minutes. I think that is probably more than usual for a Spring Conference but understandable so close to the election. For example, it was important that Norman got out our message about mental health, which he did very effectively in spite of the pressure he was under.

    Apart from that, the speakers on the motions were mainly non-Parliamentarians, for a total of 6 hours 40 minutes, and the motions had almost all come from grassroots members, even if they got a Parliamentarian to move. Of course, PPCs all wanted to get their bit in, but there were plenty of contributions from all over the place. The press always ignores them.

  • “..totalling 1 hour 40 minutes..”
    Ah well I guess that gave people the chance to nip out and have their picture taken in Penny Lane. 🙂

    It would be interesting to get together and compare notes. You would be very welcome to come up to the forgotten north of the borough. Cups of tea and buns can be arranged.

    Some time after 8th May perhaps ? I am told there is something going on which is keeping folk busy before then .

  • Alex Sabine 17th Mar '15 - 5:00pm

    What, you mean you don’t expect to be drafted into the Lib Dem negotiating team when the post-election fun begins, John…? I’m sure plans are afoot in high places…

  • Will do, John

  • Alex Sabine 17th Mar ’15 – 5:00pm
    ” What, you mean you don’t expect to be drafted into the Lib Dem negotiating team …”

    Alex, I have offered.

    I am also happy to serve on the all party commission to get shot of The House of Lords within 12 months of The General Electiom.

    I willingly volunteer for the small time-limited team dealing with the rapid disposal of Trident (without replacement).

    The emergency commission to jail bankers who brought the world economy to its knees could also have my services. Especially if it is empowered to confiscate their assets.

    With the money saved by these three initiatives I would be glad to see someone else serve on the public body set up to build 500,000 energy efficient council houses fueled entIrely by locally generated renewable energy in the next 3 years.

    With the money saved from no longer having to pay tens of millions ofnpounds in housing benefits for the tenants rehoused in new council houses we could no doubt find some other useful social expenditure.

    Would you like to join me?

  • Denis Mollison 18th Mar '15 - 7:52am

    John – can I join you in your parallel universe?

    [Where’sTerry Pratchett when you need him? ;-( ]

  • Denis Mollison

    The more the merrier! Any particular job you would like there ?

    Grand Commissioner for Electoral Reform with a remit to introduce STV for England and Wales electons within six months?

  • Mohsin Khan 18th Mar '15 - 8:34am

    Very interesting post – thanks Mary (and to Zoe for her blogposts boosting transparency)

    One suggestion (more to do with venue logistics than agendas): I’ve often found when I go up to speak, I sometimes get confused about which shining yellow light is the green/yellow/red speaking timer and which is a stage light.

    At the most recent conference, the TV camera also had a red light which at one point I thought was the timer (!!) until I saw the little lights embedded in the lectern.

    Can we have a photo from the stage on the first day next time of what speakers will see and where to look for timing lights? Obviously you’ll need one for each venue/conference. Or a big sign next to the lights we’re supposed to look at?

    Particularly appropriate for first time speakers and people who may have colour blindness or not have too good eyesight.

  • On the point about how much time is given over to set piece speeches from MPs – in the conference feedback surveys, these are always popular with conference reps, and the feedback has consistently been to be generous in the time given over to them. More time than I would give in an ideal world, but it would be a bit mean to criticise FCC of outrageously doing just want conference reps say they want 🙂

  • Zoe O'connell 18th Mar '15 - 9:23am

    Moshin – The problem with lights at this conference was bought up at the Saturday morning FCC meeting and one of the big, unmistakeable traffic light stands was moved to be by the confusing red camera light at lunchtime. It wasn’t just first time speakers having a problem, I believe some quite experienced ones were having trouble with it too!

    I like the idea of a photo from stage before the event – I’ll see if I can arrange this for Autumn. (i.e. I’ll take a camera with a wide angle lens to the pre-opening FCC tour…)

  • Interesting feedback from the always reliable Mark Pack.
    It just confirms what I have feared — that a lot of delegates just go along as a fan club, an “audience” rather than a body of political activists participating in the decision making of their party.
    Perhaps in recent years the ‘culture’ of the conference has gradually changed from an assembly of local political activists to something like that popular ITV programme “An Audience With”.
    Perhaps we could contract out the audience function to the private sector thus creating an additional income stream at the conference — is there a company called – “Standing Ovations R Us” ?

  • I took over collating conference feedback from Mark in about 1998 and did it for most of the following 14 years. There was always pressure from Parliamentarians for more speeches, but feedback suggesting FCC got it about right at most conferences – however there were a couple of Conferences where there was a clear excess of people calling for less speeches over those wanting more – to which FCC responded.

    Mary – I found my time on FCC as one of the most enjoyable and rewarding of the many activities I have engaged in during my 25+ years as a party activist I hope you find it a similarly positive experience

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