Opinion: Conference and Equality

I was personally heartbroken when Nick Clegg was left with no option but to publicly apologise for the party’s inability to uphold free tuition fees.  As my career path requires further university study, I was going to be hit financially and immediately.

Initially I deferred and saved manically but I recognise I am disadvantaged and that my humble beginnings continues to snap at my heels.  Every day requires personal strength and good friends to overcome the obstacles of privilege but every so often, I feel compelled to ‘spell out’ what and how ‘disadvantages’ continue.

My PhD begins on the weekend of the 9 March 2014 and hits the York Conference head on.  Because my college timetable was only released on the 6th of February, the LibDem conference team said it was too late to cancel.

The rigidity in their reply ignited my desire for fairness and my fingers hit they keyboard – releasing a flurry of emails to them.  Given my cancellation request was within days of the cut off point (31 January), ‘reasonable people’ would exercise judgement and allow the cancellation.

Having read the strap line: Stronger Economy in a Fairer Society, I could not believe that someone in our party would not have come up with a mitigation policy for students attending conference, especially given the party’s recent catastrophic history with this group of potential voters.

After numerous emails, I was directed to the Terms and Conditions of November 2013, which clearly stated there is no refund and that I had passed the day for cancellation and there is no appeal.

I wrote again and suggested the party offer my ticket to someone equally financially challenged.  Either I could get paid or in the worse case scenario, I could gift my ticket.  After all, it would be better to have a body on a chair rather than an empty seat at conference.  This was declined.  I then suggested that rather than refund or resell my ticket, the money could be put towards my attendance at the autumn conference.  This too was declined.

No refund, no re-sell my ticket and no credit note.  This will leave an empty seat in the York Conference.  Furthermore, I will not be attending the autumn conference because my funds will be sitting in the March conference’s kitty; therefore, this will be another empty seat at conference.

This is more than simply a transaction gone wrong.  This unfortunate experience is about a political party that aspires for equality and for the better inclusion of women – but fails to take on board their financial reality.  Furthermore, this is a party that should mitigate wherever possible its impact upon the lives of students.

As a party we have to do better but to really achieve equality we need to understand how inequality flows and thrives under rigid policies.  Diversity and social inclusion requires flexibility not rigidity.  When we write Terms and Conditions, we should ensure we don’t unintentionally add to people’s history of exclusion.

In my view mitigating social exclusion is wholly achievable, especially if we apply professional judgement.  In my younger years I had the fluidity of decent adults around me who were aware of how social challenges could impact upon future achievement.  They saw my desire to work hard and they applied fluidity to get me into university – where I began to overcome many of my disadvantages.

In contrast the rigidity of the Conference Team and the Terms and Conditions ensures that I will not be attending either the March or the autumn conferences, and as a consequence of this experience they party re-creates another area of social exclusion.


* Teena Lashmore is the Vice Chair London Region Liberal Democrats and writes in a personal capacity.

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  • Great article, completely agree and you have my deepest sympathies! I think the answer to this kind of problem is to tackle the issue of conference as a whole, which means I’d like to see something like OMOV and a change of attitude as to what conference is and does. In a party so small it’s really important that members voices are heard, regardless of if their personal circumstance present a barrier to that. Those are the exact people that need a voice!

  • This exemplifies the kind of rigid, bureaucratic decision making that we don’t want to see — in the party, in the government, or anywhere else. Who is responsible for this atrocity?

  • Andrew Suffield 8th Mar '14 - 1:32pm

    I can’t speak for the conference office, but the bottom line is that the money you paid has already been spent by the conference office, and refunding it would leave the party that much worse off. The money isn’t sitting in a bank account somewhere, it’s in piles of things in York that will now be wasted and which the party will not get a refund for. You’re effectively asking for the party to cover your own costs out of donation funds that were intended to be used for political purposes. I don’t think that’s what the people who made those donations wanted their money to be used for.

    The reason why the conference office has to be strict about these things is, sadly, because a significant minority of party members are shockingly exploitative and try to cheat the party out of as much money as they can. The things that I’ve seen people try to pull off are horrifying, given that they are effectively stealing from donation funds for personal gain. If the conference office started making exceptions then they’d have a hundred people beating down their door with a sob story and crocodile tears. This is a serious problem, and the blame for it lies squarely with the people who are determined to abuse the system for their own benefit.

  • @Andrew Suffield — That’s an excellent bureaucratic explanation; but most of us are not bureaucrats, or terribly sympathetic to the needs of a machinery which ends up serving itself rather than the people it was designed to serve. To those not wedded to the bureaucratic mindset, such an explanation seems simply inhumane.

  • I’m sure many of us have taken up cudgels on behalf of members of the public who’ve been treated in a similar, uncompromising, manner by large organisations – seems to me that as a party we may be losing our way. I am dismayed to hear a member dismiss other members in such a way as @ Andrew Suffield has. His argument fails to acknowledge Teena suggested her conference place be gifted to someone else.

  • Andrew Suffield 8th Mar '14 - 5:55pm

    If “knowing the difference between money you still have and money you have already spent” is bureaucratic then the party needs a lot more “bureaucrats”, because money is one of our biggest problems. The party does not exist to “serve the people”. It exists to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, and that is best served by spending money on political campaigning instead.

    Conference passes are not transferable. I recommend that you direct questions about why to the FCC. The conference office does not have the authority to change the rules on this matter.

    And yes, I have directly observed party members attempting to abuse the system for personal gain. Privacy rules prevent the details from being released, but I strongly recommend that anybody who has opinions on how conference registration should be processed should first go and volunteer to help with registration, to learn the reality of what it’s like. They could use the extra help, and you’ll get to see who is actually responsible for this.

  • Once again, bureaucratic explanations: “These are the rules”; “ours not to reason why”; “this is above my pay grade”; and so on and so forth. Thanks for admitting that the party doesn’t exist to serve its members, though; that would explain a lot.

    When an organisation composed of people fails to work for the people who make it up, but becomes intent on following rules and forms for their own sake, and expects people to comply or get out, then it has become a monster and no longer deserves to continue existing. People have real lives and things happen to them. Organisations should be structured so that they are flexible enough to accommodate those changes. Failure to adapt is a sign either of insufficient foresight or worse, simple hostility to the membership; a belief that they ought to be willing footsoldiers for the elite commanders, and never step out of their place. In either case, an organisation that can no longer adapt is one that teeters on the brink of extinction.

  • Andrew Suffield 8th Mar '14 - 7:34pm

    “These are the rules”; “ours not to reason why”; “this is above my pay grade”

    Everybody can read my post above and see that you are making up utter rubbish. Nowhere did I say anything like that.

    Thanks for admitting that the party doesn’t exist to serve its members, though

    The party exists to coordinate the work of its members in pursuit of a very clearly stated goal. As such the members both direct and serve the party, and not the other way around. In fact, I would say that it is those members who are under the impression that the party exists to serve their own needs who are exactly the problem I was describing earlier.

    Failure to adapt

    This is exactly the opposite: it is adaptation to the actual problems faced. Your continued refusal to acknowledge anything that I’m saying, on the other hand…

  • As such the members both direct and serve the party, and not the other way around.

    That may be the theory, but in practice the leadership directs the party and the members serve it.

  • Geoffrey Payne 9th Mar '14 - 7:54am

    Teena, conference will be all the more poorer if you do not attend next autumn. Please don’t let this put you off.

  • Andrew Suffield – where there is a will there is a way. Why don’t YOU direct questions to the FCC, surely they can authorise waiver of the rules in exceptional cases. Don’t just blindly follow rules when to do so would result in an injustice.

  • Andrew Suffield 9th Mar '14 - 11:56am

    Why don’t YOU direct questions to the FCC

    Primarily because me hearing their answer would not accomplish anything here. The people who are actually involved should do it.

    in practice the leadership directs the party

    That is how representative democracies work, yes. We select a leader to make day-to-day decisions for us. It’s still our choice.

  • Tony Rowan-Wicks 9th Mar '14 - 12:06pm

    All of us, save one, have noted that Teena suggested her conference place be gifted to someone else. How does that represent a financial loss to the party? I believe that to organize this would NOT be difficult for a caring party but it does need additional effort – a principle which I saw clearly when I joined the party initially. So I support Teena’s polite and important contribution. I trust we are not about to see that those who work within the party, for us and the electorate, could become more like the Tories through close contact. But we support Teena, don’t we?

  • Another poor person 9th Mar '14 - 2:20pm

    Every action has a cost, including the actions involved in setting up and running a mechanism to provide an ability to cancel or transfer a booking. Personally I think that such a mechanism does need to be provided, not just for students but for anyone who books and then finds they cannot attend. The mechanism will probably not add very much to the price paid by everyone who does attend.

    I am puzzled by this particular case, though. What does it mean that “My PhD begins on the weekend of the 9 March 2014 and hits the York Conference head on”? Why could the University not be flexible? If I remember right from a long time ago, I knew the start date of my PhD a long time in advance – not just a month – and I’m pretty certain I could have deferred the start for a week or two on reasonable grounds.

  • Simon Banks 10th Mar '14 - 8:14pm

    Chris B – why would OMOV help people who couldn’t afford to go to conference under the present system? If anything it’d increase the imbalance in favour of the prosperous and leisured, since local parties may decide to help prospective representatives who are on low incomes, but are most unlikely to do that if the reps haven’t been elected by them and have no responsibility to them.

    If the Party won’t move on the kind of problems Teena faced, what about a fund, similar to those promoted by some universities and colleges for students from poor backgrounds, and encouraging party members to donate to it?

  • Hi Simon,

    >why would OMOV help people who couldn’t afford to go to conference under the present system?

    Because it would enable per-member internet voting, thus freeing members from the associated costs of conference and eliminating the issues experienced by Teena. Any member could participate online, watch the debates, perhaps interact with the conference room and then vote. This would mean the poor, sick and disabled could enjoy the same level of participation as everyone else, creating a more equal party that more people have a say in. Any statistical measurements quality can be assessed by looking at its sample size – I’d like to see drastic change in that as regards brains voting on policy motions. I hope this in turn would lead to better policy making.

    At the moment conference means you’re rich enough to be able to take the time out and can afford to go. It’s inherently elitist and it’s these sorts of factors that turn normal folk away from political engagement. We’ve got to open these events up to a broader spectrum of the population and minimise the most costly activities of democratic participation.

    As to your last point, if Andrew Suffield is to be believed (and I have no reason not to), then such a fund would be taken by “members who are under the impression that the party exists to serve their own needs”.

  • Teena Lashmore has written a good piece. She is clearly fed up and I am sure others woud have been in the same circumstances. But I am rather surprised by some of the comments criticising “bureaucrats”. Who are they?

    I should say that in the years when I was able to attend conferences. (1976-2008) I was always treated with a friendly smile and courtesy by the small number of hard pressed fulltime staff from the membership department and the votunteers who helped out. Registering thousands of Liberal Democrats arriving at some conference centre in somewhere beginning with B, all wanting to show up at the exactly same time, collect everything they need and gain immediate access to the conference is a logistical nightmare. it was usually done efficiently and with a minimum of fuss. Gordon Seekings deserves the thanks of thousands of us for pulling off minor miracles year in year out.

    I am told that the membership department has been changed into something with the sort of name that sounds as though it belongs to a forgotten corner of some dubious privatised electricity company.
    Apparently we are only “customers” nowadays.
    Perhaps this explains why Teena Lashmore had the experience she did. If she was only just “another customer” why would anyone bother ?

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