This cancelled Conference jeopardises member participation and party democracy

If you went back in time to September 2019 and told the Lib Dem Conference in Bournemouth that members would not convene again in person for over three years, they would rightly be horrified. If you told them that we would be the only party to fail to do so, that horror would at best turn to astonishment.

And yet, that is the position we find ourselves in. We are a party which prides itself on its internal participatory democracy, in which members elect party leadership and committees, determine policy, form internal organisations like Lib Dem Women and the Green Lib Dems, and scrutinise party committees and office-holders, both informally, and formally at Conference twice a year. While the debate about the accessibility of Conference rightly rumbles on, and remote Conferences proved successful for carrying on training and essential business during the Pandemic, we are not yet in a world where other crucial elements can survive purely online. The Fringe, Exhibition, fundraising, congregation of thousands of party members together, and meetings of the many party grassroots organisations, have been almost entirely lost since 2019, with many party organisations facing a future where they are unable to effectively engage new members or fundraise while having to shoulder the costs of last-minute cancellations (which, as with members, disproportionately affect the less well-off).

Worse, given that two in-person Conferences have now been cancelled with only a few days’ notice, erstwhile attendees have again been saddled with hundreds of pounds in costs that in many cases cannot be recouped or used, during a cost-of-living crisis that they are now unable to pass policies to confront. That the Federal Conference Committee is proposing using the Access Fund to offset attendees’ hotel costs, and to negotiate with hotels who refuse to reimburse members on cheaper non-refundable rates (many of whom will be less well-off), is a start. However, between Spring 2020 and Autumn 2022, on average, affected members will have lost about £800 and a week of annual leave that many will not be able to negotiate about with their employers. Perversely, this includes party staff.

To be clear, the cancelled Conferences, and the organisation of remote Conferences during the Pandemic, reflect huge amounts of work and agonising decision-making by hard-working individuals under enormous pressure, and it is to their credit that so many remained open, responsive and engaged with members throughout. Nevertheless, we remain in the position that we have not successfully held a physical Conference for three years now – and while it would be madness to hold anyone accountable for the Pandemic or for the Demise of the Crown, we must still grapple with the effects of the decisions made.

It may not feel like it now, but the party must surely hold a physical Conference again – however, those who have been twice burned may be reluctant to book just when it is most important that they do so. It would be facile to insist that party bodies swear an oath that future Conferences will go ahead – but they must now act to restore trust and counteract members’ understandable scepticism. They must reassure members that if Conference must be cancelled again, the costs will not fall to the very staff and volunteers the party needs (and often, fails) to cherish most: i.e., those motivated enough to pay to attend. Some form of insurance must be put in place for future Conference attendees of all types, to ensure that if the arranged dates are cancelled once again, they are not left to shoulder the costs either directly from their own pockets or indirectly from scarce party funds, particularly if changes have to be made with little notice. They must in the meantime also spell out how members can consider urgent policy, and access vital training.

A future without physical Conferences is one where the party’s institutions decay, its internal democracy withers, its bodies and officials become less accountable, a once-vibrant ecosystem of party organisations fades away, and future leaders and stalwarts fail to become engaged. We must cooperate to ensure that it is a future that does not come to pass, and a present that does not linger on our watch.

* John Grout is a Lib Dem activist and lives in Reading.

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23 Comments

  • Laurence Cox 12th Sep '22 - 5:08pm

    Let us remember that the Party is, like the country, a representative democracy. We elect the Party Leader, Party President and Vice-President, and Federal Party Committee members to make decisions on our behalf. This decision, coming as it does after an extended period without physical conferences, is one that I would not have wished, but fully understand. Yes, it is right to call for the Party to recompense those who would not gain recompense otherwise, and to insure against similar future events, but we should not raise the physical conference to a shibboleth. The vast majority of members do not attend physical conferences; one reason that many of us pressed for future conferences to be hybrid, rather than physical-only, is the cause of inclusivity. Similarly, there is no doubt that the Party could develop more online training to go with the in-person training at conference. It is up to the wider Party membership to put forward candidates for election to the various Party bodies, and to vote for them if they believe that the present leadership are not taking the Party in the right direction.

  • @Laurence Cox – I don’t think we’re entirely a representative democracy, actually. The only way for the party to adopt new policies, change its constitution and standing orders are by party members, explicitly on a one-member, one-vote system, at Conference. It is also the formal venue for those same members to directly ask questions of, and scrutinise, key committees and office-holders. So while you’re correct that we elect office-holders to make decisions on members’ behalf, many aspects are directly in the hands of members themselves. And it’s appropriate that you mention party committee elections, as I believe nominations for those opened today. It will be interesting to see how the election campaign progresses.

  • Mick Taylor 12th Sep '22 - 6:01pm

    Agree totally with John Grout. Since I was coming from Greece to attend, I have to cover the airfare and have lost most of that and although I managed to cancel the Brighton hotel, I have still to sort out the airport hotel at Gatwick.
    But really that’s not the point. There are very important policy debates that will now not take place and strategy discussions that will now not be had. Talk about shooting ourselves in the foot. I am nota monarchist, but I can’t help feeling that HM would have expected business as usual apart from perhaps on the day of the funeral itself.

  • Michael Kilpatrick Michael Kilpatrick 12th Sep '22 - 6:30pm

    I think it’s self-evident from the point of view of the continuing function of our party that we really should have held the conference. What is as important is something that you have avoided in any detail, namely the numerous aspects of the wider argument of the appropriateness of holding a conference. This argument has many, many facets relating to the respectfulness, the view of the people and media at large, whether politics is somehow different from sport, entertainment, airshows, theatre, the conduct of commercial businesses, and more.

    From every aspect of the argument as I see it, the answer is that conference should have been held although stopped on the day of the funeral itself. Those many facets are too numerous to list here and perhaps merit a separate article on Lib Dem Voice.

  • @Michael Kilpatrick – That was a deliberate avoidance on my part: I don’t think it’s fair to criticise the cancellation of any individual conference, especially under exceptional circumstances such as a pandemic or the death of the Queen – nor would I say it’s fair to criticise the people making those decisions. But the fact that we haven’t held a physical Conference for three years is nothing short of catastrophic, and cannot – must not – be above criticism.

  • Tanya-Jayne Park 12th Sep '22 - 7:02pm

    @David Evans to suggest that it would be possible for the party to simply postpone the conference for 3 weeks shows a lack of logic or at the very least no experience in organising large events.

    To be able to put the event on with a 3 week delay assumes every single venue (not just the main conference centre) inc those for all training, social & fringe events has availability in 3 weeks time, and that there would be sufficient vacant hotel rooms to accommodate all delegates.

    It’s also worth thinking about how many attendees can simple rearrange their personal & work lives to move their time off, meetings, holidays and family commitments by 3 weeks at the drop of a hat.

    A 3 week postponement is simply wishful thinking, even a 2 or 3 month postponement I’d guess wouldn’t be achievable for the same reasons given above.

    I’m bitterly disappointed to not have the opportunity to attend conference, my first in over a dozen years, but I’m pragmatic enough to see that the conference committee had very little choice other than to cancel.

  • Paul Barker 12th Sep '22 - 7:41pm

    Can I add that it is usual for the Main Parties to get a Polling boost from their Conferences, of course normally that cancels out by the end of the Conference Season but not for us this time. Our Conference is more important as publicity to us because we get so little coverage the rest of the Year.

  • My only comment about the conference is why have it in Brighton ? Not exactly convenient for members living outside the golden triangle of the South East and London. Imagine the shock horror in leafy Surrey if Jamie Stone insisted on having it in Thurso….. or was willing to compromise …. on Inverness.

  • While I both support and understand the reasons for the cancellation, conference performs a constitutional role in enabling ordinary members and attendees to publicly scrutinise and question office holders within the party who act on their behalf including –presumably even the Conference Committee etc . It would be good and in the interests of transparency and openness to hear how this may continue to be done- particularly as the Spring Conference is likely now to be very congested. Innovation may be required.

  • Stephen Broadhead 13th Sep '22 - 7:58am

    I agree that the National Conference should have been cancelled. I booked a virtual ticket because I am looking after my 84 year old mother at no cost to the Council. I would have been unable to attend a physical conference. I will not be seeking a refund because the money can in a small way support the Lib Dems. As a member of the Green Lib Dems, I am aware of the Climate Emergency and not travelling reduces my C02 output. Virtual conferences are preferred by me. Saving money by not attending a physical conference is a benefit. Any person in the global community is able to attend a virtual conference. I do appreciate that some members like meeting people at physical conferences and I will be attending some local conferences like the World Heritage UK conference at Jodrell Bank and the IHBC conference in Chester. I hope that the North West Regional Conference is available via a virtual option. I have just booked for the above

  • Ruth Bright 13th Sep '22 - 9:03am

    I agree with Tanya-Jayne but would also that many of the party’s great and good have absolutely no understanding of the financial sacrifices many members make to attend.

    Right up until their early teens I managed to convince my kids that a few nights in a Travelodge with Mum panicking about her speech was a fun family holiday sometimes the ONLY holiday!! They saw through it in the end 😊

  • Diana Simpson 13th Sep '22 - 9:40am

    Couldn’t policy motions that have missed out by the cancellation be debated as one-offs on separate evenings, free to people who had booked conference, via Zoom or such? Is there an online option with voting facility for such a one-off?

  • David Warren 13th Sep '22 - 10:32am

    @Diana Simpson You read my mind!

  • Michael Kilpatrick Michael Kilpatrick 13th Sep '22 - 12:31pm

    Diana, I suspect that each separate evening would have to be declared a “special conference”? The party’s constitution will no doubt explain what the circumstances are in which such a thing can be called. Either way, it would have to be organised considerably and advertised clearly to all the membership, etc.

    I mean, in theory we could alter the constitution such that we could hold “special conferences” willy-nilly at the drop of a hat but I think a lot of people would say it was a chaotic, ad hoc mess if we did?

  • Lorenzo Cherin 13th Sep '22 - 1:21pm

    An open hearted article. It helps if those with an axe to use, put it down and reflection becomes their weapon.

    John does that here. I support the cancellation, but agree with some of the article.

    We ought to continue hybrid. Good as mentioned, for the envronment. Good for those cash poor.

    My view is we ought to scrap Spring conferences as well as Autumn. Have one a year or one online and one in person plus hybrid.

    Or meet every two years in person every other year online.

    More than anything, we need the members with real money to give more, the members with no money to be able to take part.

    Peers, business people, those professionals with large pensions, ought to give, like those who give to their churches, a per centage.

    Egalitarianism as social liberalism, like charity, begins at home. I am in very bad shape finacially, post covid, especially, so. Those not, please do more!

  • Pieter-Paul Barker 13th Sep '22 - 3:55pm

    there are lots of London venues with seating for 2000+ that could be booked for a weekend in early October, even at such short notice. The party has done it before for rallies. That would at least allow the most important public-facing events to take place as well as the mini-manifesto debate and other urgent business. To salvage more of the agenda, some business could be online-only on the Friday or Monday for example.

  • Mick Taylor 13th Sep '22 - 5:12pm

    The problems of cancelling the conference have been aired. It seems that we are no longer a radical party, but a fearful bunch afraid we might upset someone by doing or saying anything remotely controversial. Not the party I have been a member of since 1964

  • To coin a phrase, “I agree with Mick”. Came to the same conclusion a bit earlier though ……. in December, 2007. Not the party I have been a member of since 1962.

  • @Mohammed Amin – Fault is a word I have been careful not to use, and I have tried to be equally careful to separate criticism of a decision from criticism of its effects. Members affected by the cancellation costs for both York 2020 and Brighton 2022 will have lost around £1,000 in total, and regardless of the merits of the decisions to cancel those conferences, I don’t think that that’s a reasonable imposition of cost on members, particularly given the present (and worsening) cost-of-living crisis; I also don’t think it’s wise to attempt to minimise the effect this will have had on members’ personal finances. This is why, as I say above, I think there’s an urgent need for FB and FCC to re-establish trust.

  • The decision not to hold a physical conference in September 2021 (when both Labour and the Conservatives did) now looks particularly foolish.

  • Ed Sanderson 14th Sep '22 - 6:34pm

    The blatantly obvious decision was to hold Conference as normal on the Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday and have a rest day on the Monday.

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