Opinion: Conference – elitist drinking club or democratic decision-making?

BeerI find myself reflecting on Chief Whip Alistair Charmichael’s quip suggesting that the real business of Conference is done, carousing late into the night, in the bars and hotels of Glasgow.

In the mean time I have been standing on the town hall steps, speaking with constituents and pondering how such an aspiring egalitarian Party concentrates power and decision making into two exclusive weeks each year that leave the majority of the Party disempowered and without any voice.  During the other 50 weeks of the year we have a plethora of committees, sub-committees, special interest groups, local, federal and membership involvement to the nth degree.  All this ends as soon as soon as Conference begins.

Let’s face it – it’s expensive….

Ordinary members, who may be on a limited income, simply cannot afford to attend.  Believe it or not some members have jobs, childcare responsibilities and mobility limitations.  We (and our families) already subsidise the LibDems by paying for our travel, accommodation and subsistence for being involved in everyday Party business in addition to incalculable donations of time and energy.  Well-meaning suggestions about selective bursaries, offers of sleeping on someone’s floor for a week or cadging a lift are, frankly, insulting and do not resolve the fundamental flaws of Conference week.

The week-long event is disproportionately attended by Spads – those special advisers who are neither elected nor accountable – and paid staff who are there to encourage and cajole, wheedle and berate the delegates into toeing the Party line.  Surely Conference should be for the LibDems whose subscriptions pay for those salaries and for people who truly represent the membership’s views – i.e. the members!

Conference must include genuine discussion, debate and the exploration of contrary views and alternative options.  It should not be a pre-determined, self-satisfied booze-up that admits Party apparatchik at the expense of any gainsayer.

But it’s not just about inclusivity….

Back at the town hall it is business as usual.  Constituents’ issues and council decision-making don’t stop for Conference.  While the cat’s away the mice will play.  How many councillor-conference goers will return home to find their comfortable majority has been temporarily annulled whilst they were in Glasgow and the opposition have taken advantage of their absence?

In the run-up to Conference HQ’s focus is purely on that one week in Glasgow, York or Brighton.  Practically no work gets done for at least a month before and the self-congratulation goes on for a month afterwards.  Throw in the fact that we have two of these shindigs each year, Christmas closure and “nothing happens during the school holidays” and I begin to wonder how any business ever gets done, any decisions ever get made or anyone ever gets elected.

So what’s the solution?

We can now watch Conference from home or on the move as it is increasingly and more widely broadcast.  It’s a small technological leap from that to enabling a member in Cornwall or Caithness to contribute to that debate by videoconferencing.  It’s a tiny adaption of existing technology but a massive leap in really democratic process to enable remote (and secure) voting on debates.

Instead of trying to shoehorn the membership into outmoded practices why don’t we enable more people to participate, and better reflect society, by using the tools we already have available?

What do you think?  Vote now in the comments below:

1. I’d like to enable membership participation and have a Virtual Conference option.

2. I’d like to keep Conference as a piss-up with my mates.


* Ruwan Uduwerage-Perera is Chair of the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats.

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  • Eddie Sammon 18th Sep '13 - 5:28pm


    I agree 100%. A five day conference, perpetuating cronyism among the better off in politics, is an absolutely awful way to decide on policy and to run a political party. Many people talk about things like merit and diversity, but actions speak louder than words. I am not saying the will to reform isn’t there, but this is the year 2013 and it looks more like 1913. They haven’t even made an afford to keep it to a long weekend!

    I liked Clegg’s speech, but this is the first time I have paid attention to a conference and I’m shocked things are still done like this.

  • Peter Hayes 18th Sep '13 - 6:57pm

    Option 1 might make sense, except not every member has Internet access.
    Option 2 is just insulting to active members who give their time and money to the party.

  • Geoffrey Payne 18th Sep '13 - 8:06pm

    I do not believe we should over interpret jokes made by our Parliamentarians. For the most part conference is a serious policy making body, but it has its lighter moments as well and why not?
    Humans are social beings and there is no substitute to attending a conference where you can meet lots of like minded people. It has always been unfair that only some people can attend, and I know in Hackney some people wanted to go but could not afford it. We would love to have a solution to that problem. I do not know what that could be. Possibly the Internet could provide a partial answer, but Internet participation cannot match the experience of attending conference and networking with people.
    SLF organised a fringe meeting at conference and the good news is that SLF member Sue Dougty is leading a review on how to improve the internal democracy of the party. I recommend interested members get involved in that process.

  • Eddie Sammon 18th Sep '13 - 8:25pm

    Peter and Geoffrey, we are not talking about abolishing conference or conference voting, just extending it online too! This could be done easily via just a few emails containing the case for the motion, the case for any amendment and then your vote! The voting could even be open for a week to allow people time to vote.

    I am not a known diversity champion, but if I’m looking through the photos thinking “surprise surprise a bunch of white men” then the party seriously has a problem. This is an opportunity to improve diversity without discriminating against anybody so it must be done. I know time is the issue, but as I said in my first post: this should have been rectified generations ago.

  • Alex Baldwin 18th Sep '13 - 8:53pm

    @Geoffrey: “SLF organised a fringe meeting at conference and the good news is that SLF member Sue Dougty is leading a review on how to improve the internal democracy of the party. I recommend interested members get involved in that process.”

    You must recognise the irony in that statement? I’ve been a member for over a year now and all I have got from it has been survey invitations from LDV. I did want to get more involved but had no idea how. Unfortunately I’ve now moved to another country, so doing anything at all will be quite tricky from over here.

  • Simon McGrath 18th Sep '13 - 9:03pm

    Completely agree. I stood for FCC on a platform of making Conference more accesible – this is an idea whose time has come .

  • Agree with the prescription, not the details of the diagnosis.

    See my article in LDV last year calling for Skype contributions and suggesting loaning (with volunteer operator) tablets/Smart phones to non internet users for debate participation.


    I think you do a disservice to those who attend on a shoestring. Stewards give their time and don’t pay the registration fee. Liberal Youth share lifts and share a house rented to lower costs. Other examples: reps using backpacker dormitories, getting hotels at highly discounted rates through early special offers, using the party early bird discounted registration fees, getting rail tickets with Tesco clubcards, getting free food from fringe meetings, buying bags of bananas from Tesco to subsist, filling bottles with tap water for the day etc etc.

    The vast majority of reps are not spads or big drinkers.

    Mainly the whole thing is an extremely serious series of meetings and training courses which better inform public representatives to do their work. As just one example, I attended a meeting with the Scottish federatin of housing associations where we heard first hand of the appalling impact of the bedroom tax, a subject dear to your heart, I know, Ruwan. I’ve counted forty subjects on which I am now better informed as a result of conference.

  • Eddie Sammon 18th Sep '13 - 10:24pm

    I can see a load of excuses coming about technology – images of our conference of about 95% white people have just been broadcast on the 10 o’clock news and it is a total embarrassment to the party.

    The answer is not to discriminate against white people either by offering discounted rates to minorities, the answer is to end the five day format.

  • Geoffrey Payne 19th Sep '13 - 7:54am

    I all in favour of looking at how the Internet can be used to widen access, just to clarify.

  • My local Party – the largest in the country – makes no effort to consult its members on their opinions on motions before Conference nor AFAIK ballots or consults on who the voting reps should be. Though it nags us weekly by email to go out on doorsteps. Farcical and demotivating.

  • 2.

    But I would like to see votes be cast online as well as in the hall by some sort of verified system.

  • I agree that the internet should be considered to improve access to the policy making of Conference. However, I also believe that it should be one member, one vote, rather than a small subset of each local party. The Lib Dems often advertise themselves as being the only party who let members decide policy, but in fact it’s only who each Local Party elects to decide policy. Change it to one member, one vote, and open up online voting through a secure authenticated system.

  • Malcolm Todd 19th Sep '13 - 11:01am

    Your voting reps are (or should be) elected at the local party AGM, to which you are (or should be!) invited every year. (If you’re not then something is going seriously wrong.) Of course, rather like Conference itself, if you can’t make it to the AGM then you’re effectively disenfranchised.

  • Malcolm Todd 19th Sep '13 - 11:04am

    On the substantive issue, I’m not sure that allowing all members to vote online would produce a necessarily more representative voting population. Betcha the turnout wouldn’t be more than a couple of thousand at the outside. It would be a different sort of self-selection, but would it be better?

  • Richard Dean 19th Sep '13 - 11:39am

    1. I’d like to enable membership participation and have a Virtual Conference option

    Any party that doesn’t do this will soon be seen to be in the stone age, and slowly fade away. Few of the youth vote want to travel for a conference. With a family to feed, how many parents have the time or money? – it’s by no means cheap to travel and stay over several nights.

    You could finance it by online ads. Wouldn’t all the groups who pay for slots at conference pay for slots online? There are plenty of systems to prevent fraud – how would we do online banking otherwise?

  • Grace Goodlad 19th Sep '13 - 11:55am

    I want both – we should widen participation for members who cannot get to conference for whatever reason BUT the coming together, networking and carousing do all help build community spirit and leave people with a buzz. I always enjoy seeing first time conference goers going weak at the knees when they bump into an MP in a corridor etc.

    We do need to modernise to make Conference as representative and open as we can – but there is nothing wrong with as many of the family coming together for a party now and again.

    I know it is a nightmare for FCC but we do need to do work re hotels. 99% of hotels see conference coming to town as a license to print cash. which really, really stings members. travel Lodges suddenly go up from 49.99 to 119.99 a night. Madness.

    Perhaps before a venue is announced the party should book 500 plusrooms in mid-price accomodation and sell it on to members. Bulk booking like that would get a chunky discount and the cost of administering it could be recouped via a transaction fee….. Maybe it wont work.. But conference costs are HORRIFIC.

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 19th Sep '13 - 12:13pm

    Dear Colleagues,

    I have to say that I expected many of the responses, but I did not expect that I was going to be personally attacked on this matter. As some people have chosen to challenge me personally, then I suppose that I have to explain that my absence from Conference was due to not only to health issues, which would have certainly been made worse by camping, etc (I do not share rooms for the same reason), as well as fiscal limitations, plus other matters that I am not willing to state.

    Frankly as I exist on a small fixed income (along with many members) I have to weigh up the benefits of either attending the numerous meetings in London and elsewhere that I do on behalf of the Party, or going to Conference where my experience informs me my presence is less beneficial. What is true for me though is that Conference is about ‘Business’, especially now that the nation is watching, and it is not a ‘Jolly’ where along with others ‘I have time off for bad behaviour’.

    My role as English Party Diversity Champion is to help the Party move forward out of the 19th and into the 21st Century with regard inclusivity. This means that I have to ask questions and challenge the ‘norms’ that keeps our Party lacking in diversity and very exclusive, the result of this (which after a quarter of a century working in this arena I have experienced many times) is that people at times feel that it is appropriate to attack the messenger rather than the message. On the matter of the lack of BME attendance, when will Party ask itself why this is the case?

    Dear Liberal Democrats, our Party has the potential for being the most inclusive and equitable of all, but to do is we would benefit from “walking the talk” and seriously look at our recruitment, retention and progression policies and procedures and making some changes. Being a Liberal Democrat should never be about how many times one attends Conference, as if attendance denotes greater commitment.

    For me I was attracted to the Party from Labour because the Party espoused the desire to build a fairer and more equal society, putting the actions of some of our ‘Leaders’ to one side, I am pretty sure that the Party as a whole genuinely wishes to do this, so I will remain, and carry on being a critical friend.

  • Ruwan – please re-read my comment. I didn’t attack you – I disagreed with you about how democratic conference is. I never asked you to explain why you don’t attended conferences – I simply asked you if you do. This was to help me understand whether your comments are based on personal experience or based on the (mis)information that the newspapers publish. Whilst I might not agree with you I would never make it personal.
    I understand the money situation too, and whilst I provided a couple of examples of how you could do conference on a shoestring, it wasn’t an exhaustive list. There are plenty of other ways to do it.
    My main annoyance with your article is that by giving people the two options to chose from and written them in the way you did, you have portrayed what goes on at conference as one big booze-up. Which as I explained is certainly not the case for me – and I would also add it’s the same for many others too.

  • “Imagine the sort of manipulation possible if (for example) a vote took place on contraceptive rights, dignity in dying – or indeed any other subject where powerful vested interest lobby groups would use such a system to manipulate votes?”

    “There would be an additional financial adjustment needed to make up for the inevitable loss of Conference revenue from the drop-off in attendance and in commercial organisations’ participation”

    “those voting would have no reason to take account of the arguments put forward in a debate”

    Can you not address all three of these points by charging external lobbies a fee for sending their one-page leaflet to those registered to vote, while not charging internal bodies like LDV, SLF and LR. That would allow a high degree of informed debate, without biasing the internal landscape towards the better funded, while leaving it with voting members whether they wished to be ‘manipulated’ by clicking through to any supporter list invitations from the campaign groups, after reading their arguments.

    This surely is going to happen eventually, many of us already vote online for motions and resolutions as shareholders or members of NGOs. The question is when and how; and whether it can be done in a way where no one feels ‘their side’ is being unfairly penalised by cost, access etc.

  • “It is not acceptable to expect grown-ass adults to slum it, sharing rooms, sleeping in tents or whatever. If I attend I need my own room and want to look kriss not shambling in looking like I’ve kipped on the local park bench!”
    For me, this is a matter of individual choice. I’m quite happy being frugal during conference so that I can spend my money on other things like having nice holidays. There are many conference reps who choose to do conference on a shoestring. As I’ve mentioned before, I camped last year, but I showered every day and turned up in a suit every day. If I’d not told you I’d camped, nobody would have known. Certainly not “looking like I’ve kipped on the local park bench”. We should respect people’s choices.

  • Richard Dean 19th Sep '13 - 4:54pm

    Come off it Gareth, internet banking is here with us, security can be as well ensured as it can at a physical conference – probably better.

    One of the most noticeable things on the TV coverage in Glasgow was the clear impression that the audience was tiny. Five nights at £40 per night plus costs of meals plus a hundred for the bus and train plus the loss of job income comes to a lot.

  • Simon McGrath 19th Sep '13 - 4:57pm

    I can’t imagine why Gareth is against something which would enhance particpation in conference. It would be pretty straightforward to ensure security in voting. Members would have to register and recieve a password – a bit like online voting in the Party and other organisations.
    No reason why a fee should not be charged for this just like delegates pay a fee at the moment.

  • Jonathan Brown 19th Sep '13 - 5:03pm

    I think the article makes some good points, but treats other issues unfairly.

    I agree with Geoffrey, Paul, Scott and Gareth. I’m well aware that there are plenty of people with less disposable cash than I have, but I’m far from rich and am normally able to do conferences reasonably cheaply. Of course, I treat conference as a ‘holiday’ in that I use time off work and holiday money to allow me to do it.

    I’m certainly in favour of making conference one member one vote. My party has never had more people wanting to go than we’ve had allocated reps’ status for, but we’ve had people go (including myself) without voting rights because we weren’t able to get the voting rep list updated in time. There are plenty of reasons to go besides voting, but it does seem a big shame to make all the effort to get there and then to be excluded from what still is a far more democratic and inclusive decision making process than the other parties have.

    For the reasons Gareth mentioned, I’m not entirely comfortable with the e-voting idea, although I wouldn’t reject it out of hand. One idea I think worth exploring is allowing each constituency party a single remote voting station, so that rather than allowing all members to vote from their living rooms, they would be encouraged to get together in one venue, watch the debates and then cast their remote votes from one place. That might help prevent fraud and encourage weak parties such as ours to get together, do something, and participate. I would also make a nominal charge for each ‘remote voting rep’ to help cover the costs of administering the system. That might also help encourage voters to watch the debates before voting (in the same way that charging people to go to concerts results in higher attendance than letting people in for free).

    All that said, it would be interesting to know how many people who don’t currently / usually go to conference would make the effort to vote electronically. It would be interesting to have a trial to see whether or not an expanded, electronically voting electorate backed different choices to the reps at the conference.

  • Eddie Sammon 19th Sep '13 - 5:23pm

    I think people are making a mistake by aiming for 100% voting security. It doesn’t matter if not everybody votes is a party member, the point is the vast majority will be and it will be far more democratic than the current system.

    I think the new system could be created really cheaply, but if not I think Simon’s idea of charging for votes is worthy of consideration.

  • Alex Macfie 19th Sep '13 - 5:38pm

    An e-voting system can be made technically secure but how do you scritinise the circumstances under which the vote was cast? Credentials can be used by anyone. Jonathan Brown’s idea of members voting in specific locations is worth considering for this purpose.
    Incidentally, please don’t call voting reps “delegates”. To me, the word “delegate” implies a pledge to vote in a particular way: for instance, the people selected in US party primaries and caususes to vote for a particular Presidential candidate at their party conventions, as well as in the electoral college to vote for the actual President. Conference voting reps can vote as they please.

  • Richard Dean 19th Sep '13 - 5:44pm

    @Alex Macfie.
    Apply to your bank for internet banking, See how it’s done.

  • Jonathan Brown 19th Sep '13 - 5:47pm

    Good point re: your first paragraph.

    Re: the second, I don’t feel strongly either way. If our reps were supposed to have been mandated by their local parties, then I’d agree with you about making their votes accountable. But I’ve not been aware of any attempt to get reps to follow instructions in this way. I would have thought the point of having the debate was to give the opportunity for reps to change their mind and vote in ways other than what they were intending to do.

    Resolving the contradiction between parties electing their reps but then not expecting them to follow instructions is one of the reasons I’d like to see all members have a vote at conference.

  • Richard Dean 19th Sep '13 - 6:04pm

    I suspect that the discussion about reps and mandates and delegates is key to understanding the resistance to change within the voting part of the party.

    The present system appears to allow voting reps to represent themselves rather than their local parties. It means that conference is the preserve of the very few, and that voting outcomes can be manipulated in a way that is wholly unrepresentative of the party membership.

    For a party that prides itself on its ideas of what democracy should be, this looks very wrong.

  • Alex Macfie 19th Sep '13 - 6:28pm

    MPs are elected to represent their constituencies, and once elected can (in theory) vote as they please. I’m not sure how the system of conference representatives is different from this, especially as conference reps do have a genuine free choice.

    Yes, I know how internet banking works. My point is that banking and voting are not the same thing. There are issues pertaining to voting that don’t apply to banking. You need to ensure that the person logging into the online voting system is the person who is entitled to, and that they are voting of their own free will. I’m not saying this is not possible (for a non-secret ballot as is presumably envisaged here — for a secret ballot there are additional issues involved, making e-voting a non-starter), just that the comparison with banking is not valid.

  • Alex Macfie 19th Sep '13 - 6:31pm

    Just for the avoidance of doubt, I think the fact that conference representatives can vote as they please is a good thing, otherwise there would indeed be no point in the debate. My quibble is purely on the semantics of “delegate vs representative”.

  • Richard Dean 19th Sep '13 - 6:53pm

    @Alex Macfie.

    You really do need the internet banking experience. Bank and the customer both need to ensure that the person logging on is the person entitled to, and is doing of his or her free will. Neither bank staff nor IT staff have access to your secret passwords on numbers. There is nothing that makes e-voting special in any of these regards, and no issue about setting up secret voting.

    But do we actually want to make representative’s votes secret? That’s the way that the few reps can disenfranchise the many. I’d say that we want exactly the opposite – all reps’ votes recorded so that they can be held accountable by the people they represent. Secret voting doesn’t happen in councils or parliament, so why should it do so when reps vote at party conferences?

    I’m frankly appalled at the complete lack of understanding of practical democracy that this discussion seems to be revealing.

  • Alex Macfie 19th Sep '13 - 7:29pm

    @Richard Dean: Please don’t be so patronising, I am well aware of the issues involved in internet banking, as I use it myself. I would prefer not to go into details about the issues with e-voting under a secret ballot as it would be off-topic; let’s just leave it by saying that secret-ballot voting is secret, while banking is not. I mean “secret” in the sense of “no-one else in the world can know”. Even Swiss banking is not “secret” in this sense: details of a transactions are known to other parties to it and to those who facilitiate it. Banking leaves audit trails that allow for detection of errors and reversal of wrong transactions, but this kind of auditing cannot happen under e-voting without violating the secret ballot.

    And anyway what makes you think I think that representatives’ voting should be secret? The current system of cards in the air is far from secret. I don’t think anyone ever notes down names, but you know who is voting for or against from who is holding up their voting rep cards. I would not expect any remote voting system for policy to be secret either. However, personation and ballot-stuffing are issues even when the ballot is not secret; these are not serious problems with card-in-the-air voting in a room, but are much harder to prevent with remote voting. And how do you resolve such issues when they happen? It’s not as simple as reversing a fraudulent banking transaction.

  • Richard Dean 19th Sep '13 - 7:58pm

    @Alex Macfie

    No, e-banking doesn’t leave an audit trail that allows anyone to know what my password. The password truly secret unless it’s hacked, and that’s rare enough not to be an issue that would change a voting outcome. Secret voting is NOT what we want representatives to do anyway.

    The argument you are using is that electronic systems aren’t prefect, therefore we shouldn’t use them. That’s a flawed argument, of course. First off, nothing is ever perfect. Secondly, this discussion has revealed just how far from perfect the present system is.

    An electronic system would be better for all aspects of the voting process itself, and would also be capable of enfranchising far more of the membership than at present. It’s the way to go, though obviously not for cliques and cabals that seem to have free rein at present.

  • Alex Macfie 19th Sep '13 - 8:14pm

    @Richard Dean: Your first sentence above show that you fundamentally misunderstand the issue with audit trails and voting secrecy (an audit trail for voting equivalent to that used in banking would have to reveal who voted for whom, it’s got nothing to do with passwords). But like I said I would not want voting by conference reps to be secret either. So a detailed discussion on secret votes is perhaps not relevant here. Also I did not rule out electronic voting in a non-secret ballot; I only pointed out that there are also issues there that don’t apply to electronic banking (or not in the same way). Please, if you want to reply, do so on the basis of what I actually wrote and not on what you assume I wrote.

  • Richard Dean 19th Sep '13 - 8:42pm

    I am happy Alex that you agree with me that e-voting is the way to go. An audit trail for secret voting would not have to reveal which way a person voted. Only a trail for non-secret voting would do that.

  • Alex Macfie 19th Sep '13 - 9:29pm

    I did not say that e-voting “the way to go”; please don’t misrepresent me. I said just that it can work in a non-secret ballot. You can’t have a meaningful audit trail for secret voting, it’s a logical impossibility. But let’s leave it at that.

  • Richard Dean 19th Sep '13 - 10:38pm


    The party would not “lose” that income. It would morph into income from ads and exhibits displayed to the online attendees. The income would actually increase several fold because there will be more people participating -advertisers and exhibitors will generally pay more for access to larger audiences.

  • Richard Dean 19th Sep '13 - 10:49pm

    If you want to see a business fail, just avoid trying out any new things.

    If you want to see a party fail, …

  • Richard Dean 20th Sep '13 - 12:46am

    @Stephen Glenn

    But not everyone is able to do that. The party needs to be able to cater for people who can’t plan or book ahead as easily, for people with disabilities that make exciting things like camping and changing trains difficult, for unemployed people and people on the minimum wage, for families and people with babies, and for older people like me with a heart condition that requires a diet that is not sausages and beer.

    I hope this discussion stops soon. I’m really getting depressed. I’m concluding that conferences really are elist drinking clubs for cliques and cabals who vote according to whim, don’t represent the membership, have no idea about the technology that’s already available, let alone the opportunities coming, won’t try anything new until the other parties have proved it works for them, and couldn’t care less about liberal values like equality and inclusiveness.

  • I don’t hope this discussion stops soon, I’m really pleased to see momemtum behind new ideas.

    I think it’s wise to divide off the issues tho, as one member one vote – (OMOV) can be achieved without online conferences. Both ideas have their merits and I totally see the argument Ruwan is making.

    I think it’s wise not to conflate the two and build the case for them seperately. As my dad always said, to eat a salami you have to take one slice at a time 🙂

  • Richard Dean 20th Sep '13 - 1:41pm

    Louise, but the single slice is just so trad! Nowadays there are so many brand new, exciting, and different ways of having the salami experience.

    Dave Page, then the solution is to get banks to sponsor the security aspects of the e-voting system. It won’t cost them a penny since they’re already doing that work, and they’ll get free ads.

  • Benjamin Mathis 20th Sep '13 - 2:05pm

    Louise is of course correct about both salami and reform!

    I think conferences are great opportunities for the party and the activists (and our good friends the commercial sponsors!) but they are not perfect and can always be improved and supplemented – I challenge anyone who has queued for security in a Brighton squall or got lost looking for anywhere that does decent food in the maze that is the SECC to disagree!

    Number one has to be one member one vote – it simply makes no sense these days to stick to the voting reps system. Maybe once upon a time there was a risk of the dozen or so active associations dominating everything an ending up with policy dictated only by the burghers of Ross-shire, Cornwall and the London Borough of Richmond, but not anymore. Dividing our members into sheep and goats like this just enforces what can already be a cliquey and small-c conservative atmosphere within local parties and discourages new members from going to Conference. This seems to me inarguable.

    Second, I think we do have to look at remote voting. I agree there are concerns about technological viability, but I am equally sure that a solution exists – we are not, after all, dealing in nuclear launch codes. There is a concern that members may simply vote for their preferred outcome without listening to the debate, but if that worried us, we’d have done something about the exact same thing being done by latecomers to the hall in real life. I can’t be the only one to have come in a few minutes early to listen to a speech and found myself voting entirely on my own preconceptions for whatever motion had come before.
    Online engagement offers so many benefits for widening access to conference, potentially improving access for people on lower incomes or with caring commitments, the elderly or disabled and people for whom the conference venue that year was just too far away – Glasgow was notable for me for the number of unfamiliar faces. I’d wager a good chunk of that was people from the North who don’t usually make it to Brighton or Bournemouth and conversely people from the South who stayed at home. With so much to gain, I don’t see how we can NOT try it.

    As for Gareth’s point about lost revenue, I strongly suspect any drop-off in attendance would be minor. How many of us conference junkies would actually prefer to “attend” by Skype if we COULD go in person? I suspect very few – and I also suspect that such a drop-off would be more than compensated for by the extra people deciding to attend after having got a taster online – like how bands that give away free MP3s often end up selling more gig tickets.

    Thirdly, we need to go beyond Conference and towards more ConferenceS and ongoing democracy. With Scottish, Welsh, Federal, English regional conferences and English Council, we as a party hold 30 conferences or conference-like events per year – on average, one every twelve days. Better publicised and if given a more policy and consultative slant, these smaller conferences (ideally co-ordinated and spaced throughout the year) could really open up the way we formulate policy and the way the leadership listens and is seen to listen to the membership – rather than just being the conferences of their respective bodies (important though that is), regional and state conferences could fill a great role as “federal feeder” events too.

    Then we could take a look at something really radical. The German Pirate Party (possibly others too) have been using some interesting online tools to deliver what they call “liquid democracy” in their rolling consultation and engagement with their members. Essentially, members have a vote and they can choose either to vote on each individual issue themselves (if they have the time or inclination) or delegate their vote to someone whose judgement they trust, either across the board or on specific policy areas. You could say “I know nothing about the economy but I always agree with Vince Cable – or David Laws – or Linda Jack” and delegate your voting power to them on economic matters, while voting individually of issues of civil liberties – but recall your proxy vote at any time.

    It would be a huge and radical shift, but I think it’s something we need to think about for the future.

    In the meantime, mine’s something tall and fizzy with a little umbrella if you’re headed to the bar!

  • Christine Headley 20th Sep '13 - 6:06pm

    I liked Glasgow. At Bournemouth you have to leave the conference centre and climb a hill to get to the main fringe venues; it was great to wander around indoors in search of training and fringe meetings.
    And it was only a bit more expensive to travel from Birmingham to Glasgow (using the deal arranged by the Party) than from Gloucestershire to Birmingham. It added up rather, but it wasn’t as bad as it might have been.

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 20th Sep '13 - 9:31pm

    “I can’t imagine why Gareth is against something which would enhance particpation in conference. It would be pretty straightforward to ensure security in voting. Members would have to register and recieve a password – a bit like online voting in the Party and other organisations. No reason why a fee should not be charged for this just like delegates pay a fee at the moment.”

    Putting the comments about individuals to one side for Gareth he is a chum and someone that I respect immensely, I actually find myself for the first time agreeing with Simon McGrath.

    One day Conferences will involve electronic voting, with speakers and delegates participating from the comfort of thier homes. This is an inevitability so I am only suggesting that we actually think of doing this sooner rather than later so that we truly can be democratic in the way that we vote on policies, and as Benjamin identifies the stalwarts would still wish to physically attend so the income revenue would not drop off too much.

  • Richard Dean 20th Sep '13 - 11:44pm

    electronic voting –> more participation –> more members –> more support –> more chance of winning elections

  • Peter Brooks 21st Sep '13 - 1:46pm


    I think conference exists for a vital purpose of getting Lib Dems together, talking together, training together, voting together. That breaking down of geographic barriers, for those that can afford the time and money, is crucial as it gets Lib Dems from all around the country together in one place and gets the Lib Dems in the Westminster village (MPs, Peers and their staff) and in HQ out and mixing more with the rest of the party.

    That said I believe firmly that conference votes, and federal committee votes should be One Member One Vote. I voted for the Electoral Reform Society Council online this year which is hopefully a paragon of how to conduct an online vote. Therefore it should not be a major barrier to enable conference votes to be taken that way too, providing the system can give an instant result to the chair of the debate once the voting has closed for that debate.

  • Eddie Sammon 21st Sep '13 - 2:10pm

    We had online voting for the Liberal Youth elections. They use a software called OpaVote, which is apparently secure and looks very cheap:


    The fact that Liberal Youth are already using online voting might build confidence among the rest of the party that this can be done. I don’t know if this avenue has already been explored, but it doesn’t look too far away from what we need.

  • Richard Dean 21st Sep '13 - 2:23pm

    @Peter Brooks

    I agree. And let us not forget that this is a party of diversity. Therefore, events can have various purposes, various advantages and disadvantages, and these various things can be different for different people or peoples..

    ONE of the MANY advantages of a physical conference is that it gets people out of their familiar surroundings, thereby educating and freeing them to be more creative. ANOTHER is that it enables aspects of personal communication that are not possible by internet. ONE of the issues is cost. ANOTHER is personal security.

    ONE of the MANY advantages of the internet is that it can increases participation, educating and enthusing more people. ANOTHER is that it will allow one member one vote. ONE of the issues is information security. ANOTHER is the need to be IT-enabled.

    … and of course there can be many more on both sides.

  • Rachel Coleman Finch 21st Sep '13 - 6:25pm

    I’d like to speak up as someone with “family responsibilities”: I like Conference precisely because it is a bounded time, away from the usual demands on my time, in which I can be fully focused on politics. In day-to-day life, between my job, my children, and part-time study, I just don’t have the time and energy to be as involved as I would like. I basically manage a bit of leaflet delivery, occasional local party events, and skimming LDV posts.

    I am particularly grateful for the subsidised childcare at Conference, which has allowed me to attend with my younger child – at 14 months he just attended his third conference. I’m less able to get involved in evening fringes with him there, but it’s a good balance between leaving him entirely behind (which I’m not willing to do yet) and missing Conference entirely.

    I did enjoy spending time with friends old & new while having “setting the world to rights” conversations that might actually achieve something, but I don’t drink much and not at all while in charge of a child, so I object to the characterisation of Conference as “a pissup with my mates”.

  • There’s a great range of views here, and we need to continue the debate.
    My personal view is that Federal Conference should remain as it is (both Spring and Autumn) because there is so much more to conference than what goes on in the main auditorium – fringe, training etc. There could, however be a number of other events throughout the year where policy motions could be debated and voted on virtually, from the comfort of people’s own homes, or regional gatherings perhaps. It would give more people the opportunity to contribute when they feel they can’t attend conference – and let’s face it, there’s a heck of a lot to debate – far more than can be fitted into two conferences a year. It would allow us to debate all the motions which are submitted, but not chosen by FCC.
    Perhaps FCC/FPC could arrange a one-off motion for debate online as an experiment. The feedback from all concerned, and the experience of taking part, would help shape the thinking about how to take this forward and the feasibility of it.

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 22nd Sep '13 - 11:12pm

    As someone that is interested in genealogy I am so please that so many direct descends of Ned Ludd are members of the Liberal Democrat Party in the 21st Century, but let me assure them that the flashing lights and use of electricity is nothing to be fearful of honest!

  • Simon Banks 23rd Sep '13 - 4:55pm

    This raises important issues. I went to Conference this year, but I couldn’t afford to go regularly. Clearly those attending Conference are people with time and money – unless they live near enough to commute. They are appointed by local parties, though. I would like to find more ways of involving far more members. I totally agree that the present situation provides too much opportunity for decisions to be slewed by a payroll vote. However, many people will not be comfortable with videoconferencing or not have the technology. We’d reduce one bias and introduce another. I suspect we’d also see, for better or worse, a huge increase in factional organising to get out the vote.

    I’d like to see the debate on the day – whether with a videoconferencing option or not – wherever possible to be the culmination of a more participatory process with widespread discussion online and otherwise. This could attract the kind of people – mostly young – who are concerned about political issues but are turned off by party politics.

    I think the videoconferencing option deserves close study, maybe by a party working group. In the meantime, we shouldn’t forget our conference is far more open, with far more genuine debate, than Labour’s or the Tories’. Nick Robinson recognised this: “The debate – and they do have debates here – “. That’s worth celebrating, especially considering we’re in power.

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