I’ve had enough of nonference

I was hugely disappointed to see the recent decision to not return to an in-person spring conference in Spring 2022.

York has been proud to be the home of the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference in recent years. A return in Spring 2022, after the terrible events of the last 18 months would have been a real boost to party morale. When we attend the 2022 Autumn conference, it will have been over 1,000 days since we last heard a leader’s speech from the hall.

Despite the Lib Dems being in administration in York since 2015, nobody in the party thought it necessary to pick up the phone and speak to us about the 2022 decision in advance of the announcement. As a party that champions local government, we should be putting our values into practice.

As City of York Council’s Executive Member for Culture, Leisure and Communities, colleagues and I have been working with York Barbican, hoteliers and city partners to support them through the pandemic and help them welcome back visitors to our wonderful city, safely.

I understand the devastating effect that Covid continues to have on society and the need to  continue to take precautions to protect one another. As the son of a clinically vulnerable parent, I am acutely aware of the concerns that many of us have about holding large events at the present time. The poor management of the pandemic by the Government has left many of us understandably fearful that recent improvements can be swiftly undone by the upcoming winter.

However, we know that it can be done. Both, because in the past month, both Labour and the Conservatives have held their conferences, safely, in-person and because York has seen a return to previous levels of tourism in our city, indeed surpassing 2019 footfall in some periods this year. Our wonderful restaurants, attractions, pubs, hotels and the Barbican venue taking great care to look after their customers safely. Between now and March 2022, the York Barbican will host the UK Snooker Championship, Tim Minchin, Alan Carr, Stacey Dooley and many others. Our city has fine-tuned our response to Covid-19, ever since having the first UK Covid-19 cases in January 2020. From race days to festivals, gigs to business events – York has shown to be a safe destination.

It seems an odd decision therefore for us to plan to not return to in person conferences for a full year after Labour and the Conservatives successfully held conferences in Brighton and Manchester respectively.

I know some see this as an opportunity for a permanent online Spring Conference. Online conferences of course have benefits, and I applaud the work of FCC and staff in facilitating them so far. We have seen how they open up access to those that are unable to travel and can be cheaper for members.

However, conference is more than the hall. It is more even than the fringe events and the cities we visit. It’s the bumping into familiar faces, clutching your glee club songbook, meeting new people, sharing knowledge, attending top-class training and fringe events, and of course enjoying the finest Yorkshire ales, gins and other tipples.

We come together because of our shared values, and I believe conference is a large part of what makes the Liberal Democrats a family.

For those members who have hotel credits or reservations that need using next year, please do come. We’re working to put on more events, festivals and exhibitions for residents and visitors to enjoy – we promise you a great weekend (and there’s always Focus to deliver if you need a Lib Dem fix).

* Darryl Smalley is the Executive Member for Culture, Leisure and Communities on City of York Council.

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  • Ian Dowling 13th Oct '21 - 7:55am

    I fully agree with Darryl’s comments and I think it us very short sighted. In particular, as a party, we often struggle to get media coverage and over the last few weeks that has really been seen with the coverage of borh other party conferences. I cannot recall any at all for our own virtual conference.

    I would ask the conference committee to reconsider this decision.

    Ian Dowling, Pudsey Leeds

  • Well said Darryl. The FCC have been trying to argue their case on Twitter, mainly citing cost grounds, but you are bang on with this. A way should have been found to stage and finance it.

  • John Marriott 13th Oct '21 - 10:17am

    I must admit that, compared with the big boys, this year’s Lib Dem Autumn Conference did look a bit cheesy. Mind you, I bet it saved a shedload of cash!

  • I can see why a York Councillor would want us to return but it’s a little disheartening to see a change that has massively opened conference up to our disabled, less well off and overseas members- not to mention parents and carers and others who have difficulty getting away for 4 days- so casually dismissed because he misses glee club and having a drink in a bar given those are the only features of conference he mentions that I’ve not found amply catered for online.

    Equally it is too soon to know what impact the Tories and Labour hosting in person conferences has had- we know that the virus incubates for anything up to a week and that most hospitalisations are occurring after about 2 weeks so it’s still at least a week before we’ll see the full fall out of Labour’s conference and longer than that for the Tories.

    We also know that flu cases are expected to be higher this year and that the UK still has one of the highest covid case rates in the UK. As an ambulance service worker who is the clinically vulnerable child of an a clinically extremely vulnerable parent who I live with and care for I’m over the moon that FCC has decided not to make me choose between engaging with the democratic process of the party and keeping my family safe or risking spending a large amount of money on tickets and accommodation with no clue as to whether I’ll be able to use them.

  • I quite strongly agree with Darryl and Ian, and echo what John has said – We struggle to get any national prominence in the media and virtual makes it even worse. A small crowd of the chosen few applauding our leader looks just like what it is – a small event.

    Face to face is much better, you see people (some you didn’t even know) and have a chat over coffee, and build a bond. Online doesn’t even come close to that.

    Charley also makes a good point that online does make it easier for people who can’t make it to the venue. But that means we need a real hybrid approach.

    Now a hybrid conference is technologically difficult, there is no way around that. But bearing in mind Spring conference is smaller scale, where better to pilot that approach. It won’t be perfect, but it will be another step in the right direction. Then when the real conference season comes in the Autumn, we can go forward with confidence and outdo both the Conservative and Labour conferences!

    I also would urge the conference committee to reconsider this decision.

    There is time. All we need is the will to make it happen!

  • John Marriott 13th Oct '21 - 11:08am

    You make a good point about accessibility but it’s the ‘optics’ I’m worried about. To be honest, for many people, the Lib Dems look like a load of wimps!

  • Lorenzo Cherin 13th Oct '21 - 1:39pm

    I think the article is seeing it purely from a self interest point of you. Good for York is not good for the most vulnerable, nor for the ending of this virus.

    I agree with Charley. We do not have data of the two big parties, and since when do we ape those parties?! Online each Spring is a way of it being affordable.

    Frankly, if glee club and the not seeming like wimps, is the most encouraging that proponents of in person can be, I say , no! I prefer, if that is their offering, permanent online, accessibility to the lowest income and the disabled is Liberalism and social democracy in action!

  • Lorenzo Cherin 13th Oct '21 - 1:40pm

    Sorry, I mean “point of view!”

  • I am sympathetic to the idea that it’s much easier to get media coverage with a physical conference. While Ed’s speech was live on BBC News, that seemed to be the extent of it. Other conferences had reporters hanging around in front of slogan filled walls, though how much good that did them, or how many would come to ours is a whole other angle.

    But if we are worried about media coverage, then there needs to be less attention on Glee Club and the other stuff that’s far more hilarious for people already in on the jokes.

    I’m also sympathetic to those who feel they benefit from face to face contact, or are energised by it, but while for them an online conference pales compared to the ‘real thing’. A physical conference is genuinely a non-event for those who find it too difficult.

    It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that those who loved how we used to things, including the in-person conferences, were well represented by that approach.

    By keeping more of the party’s business online, more people can get involved. That doesn’t mean there can’t be social events, but can we have them without excluding the majority of the party membership who won’t travel to a physical conference?

    There’s a case to be said that politics is all about participation, and those who find a way to make it to a physical conference are more likely to find a way to campaign well. Perhaps it is right that the party accommodates those people more than the ones who would happily listen to speeches and vote online?

    Rather than fixate on the nature of conference, IMO we should be looking to expand what we do inbetween. Special interest groups can easily hold online meetings throughout the year without having to wait for a conference fringe.

    I also think it’s odd that if you want to attend a training event on how to give a conference speech, you have to wait until conference has started. Why not run those in advance?

    Of course the danger is that if you do stuff all year around then it stops being special.

  • I’ve been arguing for hybrid conferences since before the pandemic, as in my opinion “physical only” discriminates against members whose work or family commitments, or financial circumstances don’t allow attendance.

    I’d like to see hybrid conferences become the new normal, and the sooner we bite the bullet and work out how to do it properly, the better. As David Evans says above, spring 2022 would be a good time.

  • Toby Keynes 13th Oct '21 - 3:53pm

    I suspect peoples’ positions on this largely reflect the way in which they are leading their own lives at the moment.

    Personally, I remain extremely cautious about close interactions with other people, because I don’t want to be the indirect cause of other peoples’ deaths or life-changing illnesses.

    I monitor the daily stats, which show how the past 7 days’ average daily Covid-related deaths compare with the previous 7 days. The deaths appear to have turned downward over the last week or two, despite the ending of lockdown, but it’s far too early to be sure. Eventually, we may be able to look back on this month and see it as a major turning point – but equally it might turn out to be a blip. As things stand, daily overall deaths are well above the norm for this time of year; and we will soon be facing winter and the flu season.

    By mid-March next year, overall deaths and serious illnesses could well be back to normal, along with our lives – but we just don’t know.

    Given the rate of progress in vaccination coverage, and the astonishing continuing advances in medical treatments for Covid-related illnesses, we can be considerably more confident that a return to physical Conference in September 2022 would be safe and sensible. And that also gives FCC time to work through the challenges and costs of a hybrid Conference, which are considerably greater than for an online-only or physical-only Conference but would allow everyone to participate in one way or another and would give us a fall-back if things turned nasty again.

    So, OK, Labour and the Conservatives have both gone back to physical Conferences this season.

    Well, I certainly wouldn’t take my lead from the Conservatives, who seem to regard wearing a mask in the full Commons chamber as a sign of weakness.

    And we’ve seen far too many such events turn out to be super spreaders over the last two years.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 13th Oct '21 - 4:07pm

    A fine reflective commentary on fair ways forward.

    I think that sort of approach essential, for responsibility must be the main priority.

    We must see eradicating disease or illness as the most important consideration, maintaining camaraderie as best we can.

  • John Marriott 13th Oct '21 - 5:12pm

    I have made no secret of what I think of conferences. As a member of the NAS (later NAS/UWT) since 1966 – and for many years an active one at that – I reckon that I have attended two national conferences. As a member of the Liberal Party (later the SDP and the Lib Dems) since 1979, besides the odd Regional Conference (and very odd some of them were) I only ever attended one Autumn conference. Did I miss much? Who can tell. To be honest, I was too busy winning local elections and helping some of my Lib Dem colleagues do the same for many years. At least, like any other political anorak, I could catch up on debates on TV if so inclined.

    You see, while I would demure if I received an invitation to attend a conference, I would defend the right of anyone to attend one, especially as the Lib Dem conference still claims to be a policy making gathering, unlike those of the Tories and Labour at least. Despite the show biz, showboating and grandstanding, despite the manufactured arguments and playing to the camera, that’s clearly what those who are aware that there ARE political parties out there seeking their support are expecting to see. Not for them the dodgy wi fi connection or the speech delivered to the camera in an otherwise empty room. That’s how most people seem to expect their political parties to behave!

    Nick and Toby can burnish their new way of doing things if it makes them happy. If that’s the case you can see why sadly the Lib Dems are currently viewed as an irrelevance by large sections of our voting public. Come on chats, show some courage and cast off your masks, get on the podium and start that Revolution!

  • Lorenzo Cherin 13th Oct '21 - 5:27pm


    To have a view that is different, makes that view highly relevant.

    There is nothing brave in being reckless. There is much good in expressing concern.

    Here we are full of concern. For many of us, it is concern for those who are vulnerable, whether due to health or income.

    Some are more full of concern to protect vested interests, or to engage in business as usual.

    I take no glee in being strong in my views on covid responses. I need to be in no glee club, to express that there is no glee in a couple of hundred people leaving this world daily, often.

  • John Marriott 13th Oct '21 - 6:37pm

    @Lorenzo Cherin
    My point has nothing to do with public health; but everything to do with public perception. As to the first l’m still wearing a mask when I go into a shop or café. I take it off when I want to drink or put something in my mouth (usually my foot some may say😀).

    Mr Smalley is clearly what is sometimes called a “conference junkie”. Good luck to him. While I feel his pain at being denied all the delights offered in the febrile atmosphere that often pervades such events, my main concern is that, given that conferences have featured in the lives of political parties since time immemorial, why should the Lib Dems copy ‘Sleepy Joe’ Biden and retreat to their bunker. Joe got away with it; but look at him now! Why put up with semi skimmed from the liberals when Labour and the Tories are offering the full fat variety?

    We have got to learn to live with Covid. It isn’t going away in a hurry. Better get used to it. Be careful, yes, but be brave. Don’t you really fancy marching towards the “sound of the guns” any more? Jo Grimond would be turning in his grave (unless he was cremated). Could you really see a rallying cry like that being uttered in an empty TV studio?

  • @ John Marriott Like you, John, I still wear a mask…… as do most of the people in my bit of Scotland……… and, yes, I marched toward the Sound of Gunfire back in 1964 after being in the hall to listen to Jo’s speech.

    What an inspirational impressive Leader he was. How the party could do with a Leader of such stature now. Just for information you could pay your respects to him (and Laura) in Finstown Cemetery in Orkney near his old home.

    Nowadays, Lib Dems could have a perfectly good conference if they hadn’t tied themselves into opposition to the common sense of vaccine certificates.

    For your entertainment, here’s a search item of a film of the great man voting (in Finstown) in 1964 : Liberal Leader Jo Grimond Votes AKA Jo … – British Pathehttps://www.britishpathe.com › video › liberal-leader-jo…
    Jo Grimond casts his vote at the quiet Finstown polling station on the Orkneys.

  • Spot on!

  • Lorenzo Cherin 13th Oct '21 - 11:25pm


    Good reasons put nicely, though I can imagine it online, nearly as effective, think of the fireside chats of FDR, or the letters of Alistair Cooke!

    Ed Davey , nor Keir Starmer, are like Grimond, anyway!

  • John Marriott 14th Oct '21 - 8:15am

    @Lorenzo Cherin
    FDR could deliver stonking speeches as well. Think of “the day that will live in infamy”, for example. Alistair Cooke was a journalist, not a politician, whose job was to inform, not to inspire. Could you imagine Churchill or even Adolf Hitler for that matter giving a cosy fireside chat?!

    Conferences are there to rally the troops, to inspire them to do more, as well as being for some the ‘raison d’être’ of being into politics. It’s the ‘optics’ I’m arguing about. As far as this year’s conference round has been concerned, there were really only two ‘shows in town’, at Brighton and at Manchester. No wonder that both parties are way ahead in the polls. They are tge only ones the media bothers about. Sorry, Lorenzo, but the Lib Dems severely missed a trick here, and so, for that matter, did the Greens!

  • David Evans 14th Oct '21 - 9:35am

    John is right. We need to be seen and seen soon or we will just fade away.

    We all know politics is a contact sport and the more contact you make with the public the better your results!

  • John M spot on as he often is. If you aren’t completely back to normal by the Spring of 2022 then you never will be.

    COVID isn’t going away it will rumble on in the background and there is no reason why 2023, 2024 or 2025 will be any different to 2022.

    The public don’t want a new normal they want to get on with their lives, so a zoom conference 2 years after people got bored of zoom will look out of touch.

  • Perhaps I am wrong but whether the Lib Dems conference was live or online they would still not have had the media coverage they deserve because of all the reasons we have all witnessed over the years, the country seems enthralled by the self serving stand-up comic they were hoodwinked into voting for at the last election and at the moment they deserve what they are getting and I hope I can keep going long enough to witness my fellow citizens of the UK wake up and realise what a catastrophic mistake they have made. The Lib Dems may not be perfect but I have always hoped they would behave with common sense ,,understanding and humility when given the chance to have influence, this maybe naive and must admit to being disillusioned on numerous occasions.

  • Who knows where we will be with Covid in Spring so how can we plan anything? It’s good no to fall into the Tory Group Think that says ‘it’s all back to normal’ It isn’t. Not remotely

  • Barry, You are right and I think most of us know that the Lib Dem Conference never gets the media coverage it deserves. However, if we stick to online, it will just be ignored and we will be one more step on the road to being totally irrelevant as far as the vast majority of the British people are concerned.

    We need to take a step in the right direction, not just pretend we can delay it once more.

    Remember, “He who hesitates is lost” and I fear if we go on hesitating like this, it will be the Lib Dems who are totally be lost.

  • David you are also correct, something needs to change and quickly what that something is though ???

  • Sorry final part should read

    Remember, “He who hesitates is lost” and I fear if we go on hesitating like this, it will be the Lib Dems who will totally be lost.

  • Ruth Bright 14th Oct '21 - 7:54pm

    The last time I took my children to conference was York in 2014. It was the last year they were gullible enough to believe this was a normal family holiday. They were thrilled to spot Nick Clegg.

    Sadly this little anecdote has not aged well!!!!!!

  • Richard Farrance 15th Oct '21 - 2:37am

    I couldn’t agree more with this article Darryl. As many others have said the main point for me is the optics are better for things like Ed’s speech when he is delivering it to a room full of people.
    The other point being that as a member who has attended a few Spring conference (because they are better for those of us with Full Time jobs outside of politics). I can also say in person conferences can be extremely motivating, particularly when hosted in a beautiful city like York.
    I really hope the FCC reconsiders its position.

  • We need to think about the purpose of conference.

    If it’s about discussing and setting policy, and getting as many members involved in that process, then online/hybrid conferences are better able to do that than a physical one.

    If it’s about getting publicity, and encouraging reporters to take an interest, then a physical conference in a scenic location is better.

    If it’s about developing camaraderie, then a physical conference will do more for those that do attend, but alienates those who can’t attend.

    IMO, it’s likely a hybrid system is the way forward in the long-term. It allows keen people who cannot travel to be involved in the party’s decision-making. There will continue to be many active members who would rather spend the time campaigning than sitting through speeches, but if we can get the pricing, scheduling and communication right, some of them will hopefully think it’s worth taking a break from delivering leaflets to attend and vote on specific sessions of most interest to them.

  • John Marriott 15th Oct '21 - 9:28am

    @Ruth Bright
    Your comment on your children’s gullibility is most revealing. I wonder whether, some seven years after their experiencing the political equivalent of realising that there was no Father Christmas has in any way influenced their political leanings since.

    In all my years of political activity, I made sure that I hardly ever dragged either of my two sons along with me. In fact, all I feel today is a certain sense of guilt that I allowed my ‘enthusiasm’ for the cause to supersede my parental duties, often in my frequent absences leaving my long suffering wife at home to hold the fort.

    Fortunately, neither son now appears to hold a grudge and my marriage is still holding up. Neither son is politically active. One tends towards the left while the other is very much a ‘Tory boy’!

  • I would like to add my voice to the call for an in-person conference.

    The sad truth is that the ill-conceived and obsolete policy-making process is now so boring that until it is reformed the matter of whether access to voting on policy should be widened by means of technology is a second-order question. The main point of conference is the exchange of ideas, whether in the more structured forum of fringe meetings or informally in the interstices, and these are just what an online conference doesn’t do justice to. This is true in principle: you just don’t get the buzz and the joy sequestered behind a laptop. It is still more true in practice: at last month’s conference there was scarcely a fringe meeting I attended without at least one speaker who could not be heard or who had to continually exit and re-enter. And I could not get the chat on the stalls to work AT ALL.

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