Opinion: Preaching to the choir – regional Liberal Democrat conferences

This weekend I sacrificed both of my two possible lie-ins for London Regional Conference and a Liberal Youth executive meeting respectively.

Both left me feeling frustrated, and cynical about the future of the party for one main reason: our insularity. Regional conferences are diligently organized – usually by the same people – but feature a similar rotation of speakers, uncontroversial debates and excessive coffee breaks.

Attendance is limited to the most committed regional members (usually just the executive) and a straggle of elderly members who have all-day Saturday to spare.

Likewise when discussing Liberal Youth’s upcoming conference we were talking about repeating a familiar formula: student union building, pointless policy debates and a token training session. Our target turnout is a meager 30, of roughly 2000 young and student members.

So my first challenge is this: do we really lack the ambition and innovation to aim for more? Limited resources shouldn’t dictate the same content year-in and year-out: from a position of government we have plenty of campaigns and policies about which we can have a lively debate; looking forward we should be brainstorming about issues like electoral reform and how we can pursue them post-2015.

And even when we reach capacity of the councillors we can host Q&As with or the success stories we can share, there is a world outside the Liberal Democrats… And this is my second challenge: why aren’t we engaging with it?

A meeting of councillors, MPs, MEPs and party members in one venue is a prime opportunity for local, regional and national charities, pressure groups and companies to come and engage with and lobby the Liberal Democrats. In the past we may not have been of particular interest to them, but now we are in government (although we have been running a number of councils for some years now) we should be inviting these groups to our conferences. Not only can they increase turnout and offer potential sponsorship, external groups can enrich our internal debates whilst developing our outreach (and relevance!) to local communities, to the business world and generally the world outside of internal Liberal Democrat politics.

So let’s set the bar higher: instead of settling for the same old formula, let’s get involved with regional conference committees, breathe some life back into our internal politics and start engaging the world outside of the party…

Disclaimer: this article is in no way intended as a criticism of those who dedicate themselves to booking venues, organizing agendas and making sure regional conferences are possible – it is a call to work with and help them, and for regional parties to think more widely about what we get out of regional conferences.

* Sean Davey is the Chair of London Liberal Youth

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This entry was posted in Op-eds and Party policy and internal matters.
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16 Comments

  • James Shaddock 23rd Oct '12 - 10:24am

    To me this part of a bigger question, what is the point of regions in the first place?

    I don’t mean that to sound negative, but I think until we work out what regions are and what members and local parties want from them I think it’s hard to extrapolate into what regional conferences should offer

  • Where do MPs offices fall in the analysis of structure Sean?

    As I’d say they were another facet of the normally quoted : local / regional / national structure.

  • Fair enough. In my experience council areas seem to dominate local politics – and they aren’t always the same as MP’s constituencies. I’m sure MPs do work effectively with their council colleagues – I just think it’s a clear part of the parties’ structure & resources that gets missed sometimes – I suppose because it can, at least theoretically, change every Parliament.

    Anyway, this is far off point.

  • Sean, I’ll recommend you a Liberal Youth conference in Portsmouth 2009, with 2 charities, an MEP, 2 MPs, far from the university, and days of campaigning…. hosted by a certain James Shaddock :o)

    I’m not a fan of the Manchester venue, it was horrible to train in last time, and I don’t envy Kat’s task this time, even if the risk of being gatecrashed by the university Socialist Workers Student Society is a bit less this time. But to add to the point raised by Dave and Jonathan above, I fear you’ve smeared too many great conferences with the same brush that does affect many, many regional conferences with your wording.

  • rev simon wilson 24th Oct '12 - 12:43pm

    I am not sure how you can make judgements on all regional conferences on the basis of attending one conference in one region and even that view is disputed in the comments above. My experience of many conferences in several rregions is the opposite-usually well atended, good debates, opportunities for networking and training, strategy and campaigning insights. I am disappointed that you keep saying that the attendees are all elderly-if someone complained that there were too many young people at an event, I am sure that Liberal Youth would be outraged.

  • Sean, currently Local Party boundaries ARE the same as the constituencies, though that is, I believe, about to change with a rule change that will enable those on the ground to determine what the local make-up will be whether it should be the constituency or the council area. Perhaps the same thinking should move to the next tier up? ie. our Regional parties were probably originally arranged around our European constituencies, or the Govt regions, which may work for them but is not necessarily the best format for the LibDems.
    Perhaps we scrap the existing regional parties set-up and allow: 1) as above, the Local Parties to be formulated on what works for us locally and; 2) for groupings of Local Parties to form around a conurbation (or whatever grouping makes sense for us) as a ‘regional party’, with, say, a minimum of 10 constituencies as a guide.

  • I take Sean’s point to be about having more involvement at regional conferences from people who are not party politicians of any kind. That is an excellent point.
    At the West Midlands regional conference last Saturday, we had a speaker in a fringe event who is chief executive of the Coventry Manufacturing Group and a senior person in the Insititute of Mechanical Engineers. He was invited not to talk politics but to give his view on the Education system. He was very radical and gave us ideas that fall into line with what we in the region are already thinking about, which is very different from what Gove is saying and unfortunately also what some of our party leaders are saying.
    Cllr. Nigel Jones

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