How to go to conference on the cheap – and have more fun into the bargain!

Caron recently talked about the forthcoming conference and nudged me into writing about being a conference steward. I have dabbled in being a conference steward over the years. There are far, far more experienced hands than me. But hopefully my limited experience will encourage more members to volunteer for this honourable and enjoyable role in the party’s smooth conference operation.

This is something I never tire of saying: If you want to go to conference on the cheap – volunteer to be a conference steward.

You don’t have to be on steward duty for the whole conference. But in return for doing a moderate minimum of shifts, you get FREE registration to the conference, modest/limited subsistence and expense payments, free biscuits and coffee, a newly laundered yellow shirt each day, access to virtually all areas including behind the scenes, early and late access to the conference and a steward’s party (which is often attended by the party leader who thanks stewards).

You get to be part of a wonderful, friendly team. You get to glimpse some of the sides of conference which others don’t see. And you feel as though you are doing something worthwhile to help the smooth running of what is an extraordinarily well organized conference.

What do you do? All the stewards are there to help the smooth running of the conference, to give information to attendees and to help when needed. There are a variety of roles in different places in the conference facilities, and you can find a role to fit your preferences.

I helped a bit on the information desk. You get all sorts of questions which at first are rather challenging, but after a while you get into the swing of it.

Telling people where to go, is a key role. If you go to a conference hotel, stewards in the lobby help you find your room. And often they will walk with you to the room you are looking for, because often that is the easiest way to do it.

I once got sent to attend the meeting of the conference committee. That was interesting. I had to write down any information which needed to be relayed back to the stewards’ team. It was most fascinating. Baroness Barker was quite something to watch when she was in the chair. I will leave some of her comments until I write my memoirs.

Being a hall steward is excellent if you want to listen to the debates. Often you will be allocated a block of seats and basically hand out speakers’ cards and other literature to representatives. The nervy bit comes when there is a vote count. This is when the debate chair can’t tell whether the “for” or “against” hands have won. It can be quite tense – although it doesn’t often happen. The key thing is to very demonstrably point at each person as you count their badge. Woe betide you if someone thinks you haven’t counted them. And this can be a key procedure, because it has been known for motions to be won by just one or two votes.

What else? Ah yes. Brushing shoulders with politicians and journalists. I always love seeing Steve Bell, the Guardian’s cartoonist, coming in. You see his shrewd eye darting around looking at details in the hall, and then the next day you see his cartoon, which often picks out hilarious little details which sum up Lib Dem conferences. Simon Hoggart was great to see – a real old fashioned journalist who checked his quotes stringently.

I once invented the need to walk with Shirley Williams to show her where a room was. “But I think I can find it myself” she said. “But it would be an absolute delight to walk with your good self” said I. “Oh all right – you’re a real sweetie”, she replied. And she was a delight to chat with.

Paddy is another one who is always wonderful to bump into. When he was leader he would always single out for thanks the stewards who sit all day by a door which no one walks through. This always caused some hilarity but did show that he was sincere in appreciating all the stewards.

I would encourage you to volunteer to be a steward. It’s a great way of getting to know more about the conference and what happens at it. The party website explains how to volunteer:

Simply register for Autumn or Spring Conference and select the attendee category ‘Steward’ and a member of the stewarding team will contact you to confirm your place. For more information about volunteering at conference, please contact the stewarding team on [email protected].

Our photo above, by the way, shows one of the most important women at conference. I refer of course, to Vera Roberts, chief hall steward.

See also this article by the chief conference steward, Mike Ross.

Oh, and if you’re lucky, you might even be given a proper yellow fleece jacket with “Libby” on the front of it for the conference period. I got given one once and I really felt I had “arrived” 🙂

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist and member of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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4 Comments

  • Zack Polanski 15th Jun '15 - 10:23am

    Great article, Paul.

    Coming up this Autumn for a hat trick of stewarding at conferences, I just can’t imagine having enjoyed conference as much any other way. Really getting immersed in the whole experience and gaining a great appreciation for the whole.

    Come steward, people!

  • “You don’t have to be on steward duty for the whole conference”

    … unless you get given one of the jobs nobody else wants, which is more likely to happen if you’re a n00b.

    I did 15 hour days my whole first conference. Never again. Of course, that was ten years ago, and I’m sure things are very different now.

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