More flexible debates at Conference

Following my earlier article about my thirty-second speech at the recent Autumn Conference, I wanted to share some thoughts on the conduct of our debates. On two occasions now I have submitted Speaker’s Cards offering to speak for either thirty or sixty seconds and I was called on both occasions. However, a member of Federal Conference Committee informed me that other members have done likewise in the past but have then spoken for considerably longer – somewhat an abuse of the Chair’s trust. I have only heard from one other party member who has spoken briefly after volunteering such, so it’s definitely not the norm. On the whole, members speak for three minutes and many of them overrun (I hasten to add that I wouldn’t wish to be unreasonable by criticising nervous first-time speakers for overrunning).

What is so magic about three minutes? Nothing, it’s arbitrary. So why do we have such a rigid structure and why do only a few debates, usually only the longer ones, include the short interjections from the floor microphone? Isn’t that back to front? Surely the shorter debates – some only thirty minutes – would benefit more from more speakers speaking for a shorter time in order to ensure a variety of views?

Why instead don’t we have a system in which Speaker’s Cards for *all* our debates, long or short, allow applicants to offer to speak for either three minutes or, say, ninety seconds and for that individual requested limit then to be enforced by the Chair? Not everything that needs to be said needs to fill three minutes for the sake of it. Conversely long, technical arguments may sometimes be difficult to compress into three minutes. Let’s have more flexibility, please. On the practical issues, I think the loss of time caused by speakers approaching and leaving the podium isn’t a big deal and if it were, more use could be made of the floor microphone for any shorter speeches.

This flexibility of speaking time was the reason for my attempted Reference Back to motion F34 “Standing Order Amendment: Speaker Card Selection” the other week. I was hoping the mini-debate would allow me to suggest more variable speaking times and that FCC might endorse such an idea. In all honesty, I hadn’t prepared this properly, nor submitted a Speaker’s Card. What’s more, F34 had been on the agenda for the cancelled 2022 Autumn Conference and the idea I have just presented here originated back then. I only have myself to blame for doing nothing about this in the interim.

I didn’t wish to offend the authors of F34 with my labelling their proposed Standing Orders as “word salad”, but they composed a particularly tortuous paragraph on how the Chair would select a “balance of views” and ensure Conference was “sufficiently informed”. I also suspect that those who might hold unpopular minority views are unlikely to succeed in such changes unless their proposals are clear, elegant, sensibly algorithmic and seen to be neutral in intent. What was proposed by F34 was a poor construct for part of the algorithm dictating the Chair’s management of our debates. My article “How not to write Standing Orders” published here on 21st March 2023 discussed this very subject after a poorly worded motion was put to Sprig Conference (and defeated) to radically change how motions are selected for debate..

Let me repeat my request for tidy, clear, Standing Orders written in a way which makes them appropriate step-wise processes or algorithms – for that is on the whole what is required. And please let’s have more variety of speech lengths in debates as a matter of routine. When more speakers volunteer to make shorter speeches this may help the Chair in selecting a wider range of views in some debates, especially when the Speaker’s Cards give a clear summary of the intent of the speech.

Unfortunately the downside of any future attempt to submit another rewrite of these Standing Orders in line with my suggestion above would occupy another debate, and so we would step into the territory of the debate F26 the other week titled “Standing order amendment: Limiting the Number of Constitutional Amendments and Standing Order Amendments that can be Discussed At Any One Conference”. That is a whole different can of worms – as well as a mouthful.

* Michael is an English Council representative for the East of England

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  • I agree.
    I would not criticise first time speakers for over-running, but I would for experienced speakers (even Parliamentarians) – and for not bringing their comments to a close when requested by the Chair (sometimes more than once!).
    We already have one minute interventions for some debates, and iI would like this to be used more often. The key points of many speeches can be made within a minute (and would often benefit from having to do so). Interventions make more efficient use of time, because it is quicker to get to the microphone than onto the stage. However, I recognise that an intervention is not as good as a speech for a PPC to post on their social media!
    At the last Conference, I submitted a speaker’s card for the debate on housing. When I heard how many cards had been submitted, I looked again at my 3 minute speech; I found that the policy part could be made in one minute, so I also submitted an intervention card. However, no interventions were called, despite this being stated in the agenda (why not?).
    I therefore make two suggestions to Conference Committee:
    – There should be interventions in any debate of at least (say) 45 minutes.
    – The speakers card should have a box to tick that you would make an intervention if not called as speaker.

  • Michael Kilpatrick Michael Kilpatrick 7th Oct '23 - 7:27pm

    Simon, thank you for comments. My thoughts are that there is no reason why interventions (or shorter podium speeches) should be limited only to debates over 45 minutes long.

    If we set aside the distinction between an intervention from the floor and a rather short speech from the podium, I agree that the Speaker’s Card could allow someone to offer to take a short speech as well as indicate their preference to speak for three minutes. They may well have submitted a point of nterest on their Card but the Chair might feel, for the sake of accommodating other speakers of interest also, to invite that person to speak for only a minute. Such decisions by the Chair are ultimately limited or facilitated by the clarity of the summary as submitted on the Cards, of course.

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