Six things I learnt from Lib Dem Virtual Conference

1. Multitasking is a benefit and a hindrance

It was hugely enabling to be able to attend lively, stimulating debates and hear from the great and the good on how we can make Britain better for everyone, whilst in my slippers and nursing my baby. It meant that my other half didn’t have to manage our toddler on his own for a weekend and we could still enjoy our family meals and bedtimes together. The downside was that we still had family meals and bedtimes: my ability to get fully immersed in conference life, meeting people, attending sessions, ruminating on what had been discussed was diminished because in between or even during sessions, I was trying to soothe a crying child or distract a toddler from a tantrum. It felt great to be able to juggle family and political life, but it is a juggle – and there were definitely moments where I felt I was doing neither justice.

My learning: I should treat virtual conference like real conference, and ensure I book out time and space to get engaged rather than seeing it as an opportunity to do it all.

2. Virtual sessions enable the speakers to speak and the audience to listen

How many times at a conference or event does the room get dominated by the loudest voice or someone who pretends they have a question when what they really just want is a mic? The video nature of sessions during online conference enabled us to hear from the panel, and for the chat to highlight the biggest talking points that should be put to the panel, rather than the Chair somewhat rolling the dice based on who put their hands up. The best sessions were ones where there was someone monitoring the chat and able to feed back to the Chair on what common or contentious discussion points were, and then where the Chair made best use of the people and time to field this. I would love to see real life Chairs able to be so strong in managing the room and conversation to keep things on point.

3. Video should bring down the barriers for people to speak rather than put people off.

Delivery without an audience is tough. The energy from smiling faces, nods and claps can keep you going, though equally the sight of people nodding off can push you along to pick up the tempo. Without seeing people’s reactions, it is much harder to adjust and ensure your best delivery. But it can also be liberating. You can focus on your message and the heart behind it rather than worry about other’s reactions. I would hope that those that might be intimidated by speaking in front of a large audience might have found themselves more comfortable and confident in their own familiar surroundings with or without their slippers on, and give them confidence for future opportunities too. Which I hope means that we got to hear from a wider spectrum of people or at least different people to those we might normally. Long may that continue.

4. Lowering the barrier to entry makes for better conversations and a better party

Having an online conference helps save people money and time, and enables people to fit it around other commitments much more easily. £40 to attend compared with usual ticket price + travel + accommodation + meals is a huge saving making it much easier to afford the investment. It also means you aren’t spending hours travelling there and back or makes it more feasible if you only want to attend a few sessions that are spread across several days or if you have other responsibilities. In many ways, attending Conference can seem like a self indulgence – in both time and money when we all have so many other commitments to ourselves, family, friends, work, constituents. Making it virtual can make it all much more justifiable, and a lower carbon footprint to boot. But even more than that it lowers the barrier to entry which means we get much better conversations, debate and policy, and not just the die-hards or wealthy.

5. Polls made voting clear and simple

I can’t be the only one who usually gets completely lost in all the motions and amendments during policy debates. This year I found it far simpler to understand what the key amendments were and how they were being proposed and voted on. It kept things on track and organised, and it meant you could more easily tune in to vote at the right time when in person you might be unable to get to the hall at the right moment. And it gave much clearer outcomes on numbers for and against. Even in real life conference, I would like to see us adopt digital voting as a way to ensure clear member voice.

6. There’s significantly less serendipity

At last year’s conference I ended up standing next to a mutual friend from university, I made friends by walking past people and I actively sought others to support their campaigns. All of these encounters stood me in good stead when a few months later I was standing as a General Election candidate for the first time. I missed that this year. I tried out the networking function which was fun but brief, but whilst trying to juggle attending with family commitments (see point 1!), I felt I couldn’t justify the extra time on networking when I wanted to maximize my time at sessions. Which makes me fully supportive of face to face events too, particularly beyond the local boundaries ( you learn so much more outside your bubble) but I’d like to see how we can make virtual serendipity work.  Sometimes the best networking is done when you aren’t trying. Who knows how but it needs further thought.

I’m immensely proud that the Lib Dems have managed to pull off what many of the other main parties, who are significantly better funded, could not – an interactive, fully functioning, well attended and engaging conference. I hope that we can continue to lead the way by opting for at least one virtual conference a year. Until then, I look forward to seeing you all in an online meeting space soon…


* Meera Chadha is Vice Chair of the Waltham Forest Liberal Democrats, and was a Parliamentary candidate in the 2019 General Election

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One Comment

  • richard underhill 6th Oct '20 - 7:49pm

    In live sessions we are asked to support particular policies. For instance one was giving out leaflets to support 0.7% of GDP as one of our Scottish MPs wanted to support the United Nations policy on international aid. It passed conference and was put into UK law to the frustration of Tories who want to spend the money differently.
    When we achieved something in the coalition please defend it in case some Bone -headed right winger thinks differently.

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