Let’s all make conference more financially diverse.

Tackling inequality is one of my greatest passions, it quite literally gets me out of bed in the morning.

It’s also quite well established now that the more representative decisions making bodies are, the more all of us benefit, no matter if we belong to an underrepresented group or not. The past decade has been a historical time in politics for minorities and activist groups have many proud achievements to celebrate in the name of diversity (yet of course, we still have so very far to go), but there’s one spectrum of diversity that’s not doing so well lately, and we don’t really appear to be tackling it head on, and that’s financial diversity.

Politics favours the rich. Not just because we aren’t doing enough to create a more fair society, but because Parliament is the most unrepresentative forum you could imagine, and by design: unless you’ve got a spare £34k knocking about, as Isabel Hardman estimated in the Spectator last year, you’d better be prepared to work 50 hours a week and volunteer maybe 20 on top of that if you want a chance of ever standing as a parliamentary candidate.

And sadly it’s not the only unrepresentative decision making place in terms of diversity.  So is our very own conference. That’s not anyone’s fault, it’s just that maybe we’re not so aware of financial diversity and how underrepresented those on lower incomes are in society, and in our party.

The barriers to access aren’t always obvious. It’s not just the inability to pay for conference registration that might be preventative, it’s the travel costs, accommodation, disability related costs, potential loss of earnings, sustenance, childcare and simple self prejudice that you don’t believe you belong at a “conference” in the first place. Maybe your parents never went to one, and quite frankly you don’t even really know what a conference is.

But there’s something we can do, and there’s something that’s already been done. I’m so grateful to the work that the Conference Team has done this year in getting the Conference Access Fund off the ground, and I’m really pleased to have been able to help in the process. The FCC recently set up a financial inclusion working group, which I was lucky enough to be a member of following my paper submission to Federal Conference Committee, calling for a more financially diverse conference.

The fund covers up to £100 for accommodation and travel, and £100 for childcare, as well as circumstance related funding for disability related costs. If you’ve got something to say at conference, and you can’t afford to go, please apply to the fund, we need you there.

The further reality is, the diverse voices we need at conference, and that we need to encourage in politics, might not be reading Lib Dem Voice, and there’s plenty more who are not even members of the party. We need to actively reach out to these people to combat the self prejudices that people have about where they belong, and where their voice matters.

So here’s my to final point.  If you feel financially excluded, because you simply don’t ever have cash flow, and you’re always worrying about the very fine line between black, red, and unauthorised overdraft charges, and even the thought of buying a ticket to be refunded by the Access Fund puts you off, speak to the conference office about your situation. If you feel like you’ve got something to say, there’s a way to get to conference, and you deserve to be there*.

So let’s all make conference more financially diverse: if you cannot afford to attend conference, apply to the access fund and come! If you can afford to attend conference but can’t contribute to the access fund yourself, encourage others that wouldn’t go to conference to apply to it! And if you’ve got a bit of money that you were going to spend on a first class ticket to conference, maybe go standard class and donate the difference to the fund instead.

So much of how the world operates doesn’t favour those on lower incomes, so we need more voices from lower incomes in politics. Let’s make this conference, and our party, more financially diverse.

*On that note, I personally attend conference as a steward, not just because it’s the way that I make it financially viable for me, but also because having something to do whilst at conference really helps me engage with the experience more. I recommend applying! You can find more information here.

* Joe Richards is a campaigner, occasional writer, economist, swimmer and Saints supporter. He is interested in income equality & international human rights.

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8 Comments

  • ” if you’ve got a bit of money that you were going to spend on a first class ticket to conference, maybe go standard class and donate the difference to the fund instead.”

    This is an excellent idea.

  • Great stuff Joe I am in total agreement. Maybe every former and current MP as an act of penance for voting through such poverty causing treats as the Bedroom Tax could give a generous donation to this fund. I would salute such an act.

  • Laurence Cox 23rd Dec '15 - 7:46pm

    Local Parties should subsidise members to go to Conference too. Certainly, my own Local Party has done so in the past, when we have had members who could not afford to go. We should not rely on FCC to pick up the tab, although I approve of their initiative.

  • Really good article. Yes taking time of work can be a barrier as well as finance and the perception that conference is a club where everyone else seems to know what’s going on but you. Could more of the substantive business be at the weekend for example? Also how about always holding conference somewhere central e.g. Birmingham so travel costs are minimised for more people.

  • Brilliant piece Joe, full of the passion that I treasure about you.

    Now we have OMOV it’s imperative that our various conferences are as open and diverse as possible, and that other ways for participation are made available.

  • PS I’ve only been to Conference once so maybe I shouldn’t overgeneralise!

  • I absolutely agree, though as I’ve never travelled First Class in my life (except once from Sarajevo to Kardeljevo in former Jugoslavia at the invitation of the ticket man when standard class was full) one of the suggestions would leave me not donating.

    I also agree that local parties should help if they can (remember some have very little money). Unfortunately abolishing the relationship between being a voting rep and representing a local party (“OMOV”) has reduced motivation to do so, though local parties can still choose to elect reps – alongside others who bypass the local party and also have voting rights – expect reports and openness to lobbying of those reps and financially support those who need it.

  • Laurence Cox 27th Dec '15 - 11:32pm

    @Judy Abel,
    A good point about holding Federal Party conference in a more central location. Now we are no longer in government and most of the media has lost interest in us, we can afford to go back to some places that we used in the past. Certainly, I would like to see us go to Harrogate and Sheffield to the east of the Pennines, and Manchester and Liverpool to the west. Combining this with Birmingham, as suggested, would give us a good choice of venues while reducing the average journey cost/time for members in most parts of the country.

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