Why we need to hold the biggest autumn conference ever

When the members consultation for the big question over Autumn Conference came out and I then heard from those already asked to make decisions on behalf of Federal Board on the matter, I was confused that one of the core arguments from HQ was around the effect that holding Conference could have on the party’s election expenses if it is too close to a General Election.

A very quick google search led me to what the law has to say on the subject, which is that in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 Schedule 8 (Campaign expenditure: qualifying expenses) 1. (8) states “For the purposes of section 72(2) the expenses falling within this Part of this Schedule are expenses incurred in respect of any of the matters set out in the following list…. (8) Rallies and other events, including public meetings (but not annual or other party conferences) organised so as to obtain publicity in connection with an election campaign or for other purposes connected with an election campaign.”

Now I am not a lawyer, but the wording of the law reads to me very clearly that however close to a General Election, holding a Conference would allow us to spend as much money as we could physically afford and it would explicitly not count towards the party’s electoral expenses, while a non-conference “General Election launch” (aka a rally) would count and opens the party up to endless difficulties when wanting to hold such an event to a similar scale and reach, as Conference does.

I am unsure of why this seems to have been missed by the party when drawing up plans for Autumn and it is unfortunate that party members are being asked to make a decision without all the facts before them, but what worries me further is hearing that the options that Federal Board will discuss will be between a short slimmed-down conference vs a General Election launch rally, but, given the law around election expenses, we should be looking to hold as big, bold and expensive conference that we can possibly afford.

Furthermore, the timetable for Conference season is that we go first, followed by Labour and then the Conservatives, so if (as it seems inevitable) we will have an Autumn General Election the basic logic would be that the earliest that the Conservatives would announce it is at the Tory Conference itself. They would be unlikely to give up their one last big set piece and, with it a last ditch attempt to change the narrative before going to the polls. So the logic that we would need to cancel conference due to an election is sketchy even before accounting for the expense question.

It would be a huge mistake for the party to fail to utilise and miss out on a big Friday to Tuesday Conference to galvanise, inspire and train party activists just before a General Election when it will also not count towards the election expenses and where the press and media will listen and report on us far more than they otherwise would (with the added possibility of the Ofcom Code Section 6 on due weight during election periods taking affect).

It is clear to me that there are seemingly no downsides to holding as big and spectacular a Conference as we can muster, regardless of when polling day will fall, and I encourage everyone to respond to the consultation survey, and to include holding a full length conference in the “anything else” section, and send a clear message to Federal Board!

* James Bliss is the Secretary of the South Central Liberal Democrats, the English Young Liberals Policy Officer and an activist in Oxford West and Abingdon.

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38 Comments

  • I wholly agree with James. I have to say I was surprised by the ‘agents/nominations deadlines’ argument as there is an extremely narrow range of dates in which Sunak would have to go and see the King for that to be true – and as James says, the number of agents who leave it to the last minute ought to be very small.

    Presumably the concern around “other expenses limits” relates to those of individual constituencies – if this is the case, having clear rules, clearly communicated to the GE agents and candidates in advance, will be all that is required, the most extreme presumably being that the live stream from the main conference hall will be cut while candidates speak, which will be easy to enact, along with the same strict publicity rules that are associated with, for instance, leader’s visits during the regulated period for local elections (e.g. no photos of candidates on the stage, etc. to be used in voter-facing communications prior to polling day).

    If the party leadership is worried about members causing it embarrassment due to its annoying tendency to vote on policies, amendments, etc., it would not be beyond the wit of FCC to set the agenda with a forthcoming general election in mind, on the basis that the manifesto will likely already have been set, in which case perhaps there will be more opportunities for topical and emergency debates, and discussions and Q&As as opposed to policy motions.

  • If we make it to Parliament’s summer recess, and assuming it isn’t recalled early, then the earliest scenario is that an election is called on the 2nd September, Parliament is dissolved on the 5th, conference is 14-17th September, and the election takes place on the 10th October.

    If Sunak waits until after the conference recess then the likely election date is the 21st November. That would be after the US Presidential election, with several high profile Tories cheerleading for Trump, Sunak will have to judge whether that helps or hinders his chances.

  • Peter Davies 19th Mar '24 - 6:51pm

    Conference isn’t just an expenditure it’s typically very profitable. The guarantee of a genuine conference would allow people to book early and bring in a bit of money before the election whether it’s before or after conference.

  • Paul Barker 19th Mar '24 - 6:54pm

    The Government plan seems to be October 10th which would turn Conference into a Rally, that seems like a waste of Money & Activist Time & energy, to me.

    However, I don’t believe The Conservatives can hold it together till then or have a New Leader by Acclimation so a Summer Election is on the cards. Lovely unless there’s a Heatwave.
    How long in advance do the final decisions about Conference have to be made ?

  • Neil Fawcett 19th Mar '24 - 7:12pm

    It hadn’t occurred to me that there would be an issue with election expenses in the way the article assumes.

    The two key issues for me are money and staff.

    Yes, it is fairly easy to come up with scenarios that would result in no clash.

    But there are also many scenarios where they would clash.

    The question is what level of risk we are happy to accept that it might be the latter when the consequence is a cost to the party of half a million quid. That would cause us a lot of damage. The Tories? Not so much.

    The bigger risk is around the strain on our staff.

    We have far fewer staff than the other parties, both at HQ and in the field. They are already feeling the strain of a long busy build up to date.

    Our conference preparation involves staff across the board, not just the tiny team in the conference office. The run up to conference is one of the busiest of every year and doing conference is tiring too.

    I do not want our team to tire themselves out preparing conference, and to then arrive home to hear that a general election is about to start.

    At this stage none of us know what is going to happen.

    From my perspective, based on the level of risk I think there is around conference, I think it is quite reasonable to take an alternative approach this year.

  • Nonconformistradical 19th Mar '24 - 7:47pm

    I assume James Bliss and Neil Fawcett know each other given both are from the same area. I don’t know if the 2 of you talked before James submitted the OP…?

    Neil has been around this party for a very long time and deserves attention.

    We had to cancel the Autumn conference in 2022 due to the death of the Queen. Having to cancel another at very short notice – financially does that even bear thinking about?

  • @Nonconformistradical – The party has outright cancelled two conferences and moved at least another two or three to online-only at short notice over the last four years. The fact it is seriously considering doing so yet again hardly bears thinking about and in fact beggars belief. There must come a point where the party decides simply not to hold conferences any more and instead become a Stakhanovite leaflet delivery organisation in which its members have precious little say.

  • William Tench 19th Mar '24 - 8:05pm

    To focus the discussion on the expenses limit is to miss the point. For our party, that limit is theoretical. Even in 2019 when we were backed by pro-Remain megadonors and the limit was significantly lower, we weren’t anywhere close to meeting it. Bluntly, it is an irrelevant consideration.

    This is not a question of what we can afford against a legal limit, but what we can actually afford. Especially if circumstances outside of our control force any event to be cancelled – investing our limited resources into something with no electoral benefit.

    As someone who works in a target seat, and works in an alongside a colleague in a moving forward plus seat, I know how important the support both seats get from the Federal Party is. At a recent event for South Central organisers, not having enough money to realise aspirations and maximise existing volunteer capacity was raised by a number of seats.

    Ed Davey keeps on repeating that this the ABC (‘anybody but Conservatives’) election. For me, that makes federal financial support even more vital. The difference in the number of seats we win in a scenario where we can position ourselves as the main challenger through active local campaigning and good, targeted literature is stark. The Federal Party’s TAPS programme for Advanced and MF+ seats has been a game changer in this regard. It is vital we don’t allow this to be impacted because we spent too much on a conference that might be cancelled anyway.

  • I am not sure that it is an ABC election for people in the Labour party who expect to win a majority without tactical voting. They could well sabotage us in LD/Con marginals.

  • Mick Taylor 19th Mar '24 - 9:05pm

    FCC have voted to have a conference in autumn 2024. Mark Pack doesn’t agree with this. He is therefore trying to get the party (through a so-called consultation) to give him grounds to overrule FCC via FB. Don’t fall for it.
    If the GE is on October 10th that’s almost 4 weeks after the proposed conference. Surely we are not going to be stupid enough to give away this opportunity for free publicity, rousing speeches and clear policy proposals.
    If our success at a GE is dependent on 2-3 days of campaigning, then we really are in a poor state.
    Let’s have the conference and go back to our constituencies fired up to win

  • Peter Davies 19th Mar '24 - 10:24pm

    There are about 25 credible Thursdays of which four would interact with the election campaign. Probably all of those would give Labour a boost compared to the Conservatives. Sunak doesn’t know when it’s happening. Their next leader may not either.

  • Alex Macfie 20th Mar '24 - 8:25am

    @Jim Dapre: Perhaps but Labour has officially detargeted most of our Tory-facing target seats, and they have very little local presence in a lot of them. This doesn’t mean we should be complacent — there could be an outbreak of candidatitis among Labour associations in no-hope seats, particularly after the Mid-Beds by-election result. But they won’t get the backing of the central party, unlike in 2019 when Labour was controlled by the partisan Left who do indeed prefer the Tories to win against us. Also many Labour activists in our target seats are of the embittered, sectarian variety and are more likely to put voters off voting Labour than encourage them. Voters, who don’t think like party activists or apparatchiks, will take their cues from whom they see campaigning in their areas.

  • Martin Pierce 20th Mar '24 - 9:14am

    I’ve been to a few conferences over the last 40 years but confess I personally never really enjoyed them very much. But they are important for recharging activist batteries away from endless leafleting and door knocking and get us national media attention we wouldn’t otherwise get. This year’s seems perfectly timed. I also can’t understand the enthusiasm with which we now seem to be determined to cancel conferences. Why the Party President of all people would want to do this is beyond me – at the very least you need to explain it better Mark as it’s not at all obvious. PS – the Liberal Party held its Assembly on Sept 1974 when the general election was on Oct 10th.

  • Graham Jeffs 20th Mar '24 - 9:30am

    Mick Taylor – you may well be right. I favour having a conference.

    I have concerns about both the attitude and competence of some at HQ. We need accuracy and balance.

    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2024/mar/20/revolution-britain-politics-devon-tory-mps-afraid?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

  • The link posted above:

    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2024/mar/20/revolution-britain-politics-devon-tory-mps-afraid?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

    is illuminating:

    “The UK’s first “people’s primary” involved seven meetings … Candidates … were invited to explain to voters why they would be best placed to evict the Conservative. After each meeting, constituents voted by secret ballot …. When the aggregate result was announced, everyone in the constituency could see who other people believed was the most promising challenger.”

    “Most shocking and self-destructive has been the reaction of Liberal Democrat party managers. After the South Devon process had begun, a letter to candidates from the Lib Dem chair in England instructed them: “Under no circumstances are you to take part … any candidate who ignores this instruction, and participates in a primary, risks having their approved status rescinded and the withdrawal of party support and resources.” “

  • Mick Taylor 20th Mar '24 - 1:02pm

    @David Allen. The party is absolutely right on this one. It is almost certain that these so called primaries will be wholly unrepresentative of the electorate with one party or another packing them with their supporters to get the result they want. The organisers simply are not remotely able to ensure that they will be representative. There is every likelihood, in my opinion, that they will, in many cases, select a candidate who really doesn’t have the best chance of beating the Tories, and could be used by, say the Labour Party, to prevent a LibDem who might win from being selected.
    We should have nothing to do with this flawed process.

  • Is there anything to stop the government from waiting until Labour and LibDem conferences have committed to dates and spent money – and then arranging the general election for September 12th? This would wipe out the benefits of publicity normally generated by conference and hit both the budgets and staff resources of our party and Labour. The Tories have deep pockets and most of the media attention, so it would hardly affect them.

  • Graham Jeffs 20th Mar '24 - 2:15pm

    Whilst I would not be tempted to encourage primaries, I consider the tone of what was sent to candidates to be wholly inappropriate.

    Hopefully our candidates can read and take advice. The drawbacks to participating in primaries had only to be explained together with a strong recommendation that candidates should not participate in them and that the party does not endorse the process because of its many flaws.

    Sending them OTT threatening letters has all the hallmarks of incompetent management hiding behind authoritarianism.

  • Peter Davies 20th Mar '24 - 3:19pm

    @John Read. There’s nothing to stop them. I don’t see how it would hit our finances. It could do wonders for the finances of the Metropole Bar. Our staff might not be at their most organised but if they’ve delivered fifty seats they will be forgiven. I can see a lot of downsides for the Tories. They would prefer the campaign to be during university term time. It’s prime holiday time for pensioners. A conference two weeks after a massacre would be a bloody affair.

  • Nonconformistradical 20th Mar '24 - 4:32pm

    @Mick Taylor
    “It is almost certain that these so called primaries will be wholly unrepresentative of the electorate with one party or another packing them with their supporters to get the result they want.”

    Same might apply to any ‘hustings’ during the election campaign woulnd’t it? I thought it had been known for candidates who decline to turn up to such local meetings to be ’empty chaired’

    @Graham Jeffs
    “Sending them OTT threatening letters has all the hallmarks of incompetent management hiding behind authoritarianism.”

    Quite. It sounds more like the Labour Party.

    If a local group of volunteers chooses to organise such a meeting I would have thought not turning up is likely to result in negative publicity in the local media.

  • @Nonconformistradical: Yes, a hustings could be packed by one party. But I guess the difference is, at a hustings, no-one is measuring the votes of all the attendees in order to determine which ‘progressive’ party to vote for.

  • Alex Macfie 20th Mar '24 - 6:50pm

    These “people’s primaries” are likely to be primarily (pardon the pun) of interest to partisan voters. This may even include partisan Tories who might join the meetings (perhaps under false pretences) to vote for the weakest or most embarrassing potential opponent. But the lack of any official status means that the contests and their results will have little effect or relevance to ordinary voters. I certainly find it doubtful that voters will care one way or the other whether any candidate participated in them.

  • Alex Macfie 20th Mar '24 - 6:51pm

    PS voters cannot be neatly divided into “Tory” vs “non-Tory”.

  • I would have more sympathy with arguments in favour of cancelling the Autumn conference this year if we hadn’t already cancelled so many in-person conferences, generally at short notice at extreme cost to members and wasting huge amounts of party money and press coverage. Cancelling one or two over a four-year period might be forgiven, but not this high number. I expect the press coverage around “Sunak calls election; Lib Dems cancel conference again” to be less than it should be, derisory at best, and thoroughly deserved – though sadly it will tarnish our hard-working candidates and activists rather than those who would have actually made the decision to cancel yet again.

    I would find claims that decision-makers love Conference more believable if they jolly well stopped cancelling them!

    I’m not sure what the people’s primary stuff has to do with Conference, but apart from the obvious risk that a Lib Dem candidate in a clear second place could be outvoted by (say) a salty local Labour party, the bigger risk is that during the election campaign, the primary network attempts to put out materials endorsing the anointed candidate. This would fall hideously afoul of the revised election expenses laws and is almost certainly behind the entirely reasonable decision by the Party. But I do think that is off topic for this discussion.

  • And Mark, to your point, why not simply say that Parliamentary Candidates can’t speak from the main stage? This would be regrettable, of course, but surely much less regrettable and much less of a mutilation than cancelling conference yet again?

    It’s abundantly clear from the last few years that there is a strong animus in some quarters against holding in-person conferences, and it would be much better for everyone involved to say so, and get that out in the open so we can discuss that, rather than this constant stop-start.

    And again – if that’s not the case, prove it.

  • There are, of course, limitations to what can be achieved by organising unofficial “primary” elections. However, what is patently obvious is that the organisers sincerely hope to strengthen the challenge to the Tories, and that many voters share that hope. They will not like the Stalinist response which Labour have given, and they will be dismayed to see the Lib Dems making the same response.

  • I’m sorry to have to say this, but the direction of travel of the party under Mark’s presidency over the last few years has been one of ever increasing centralisation of power along with rampant bureaucratisation, all the time accompanied by the reduction or removal democratic participation and involvement by ordinary members. The well rehearsed and numerous explanations really do show how totally invested Mark is with this change in direction for our party. Great for quick decisions wanted by the powers that be, appalling for a full consideration of all the issues by a party believing in diversity and member involvement.

    At conference in York, I personally spoke against another constitutional change proposed by the centre (Proposed by the VC of Federal Board and summated by Mark) where elections in one small part of the Party’s processes were to be replaced by appointments. Personally I am very, very worried.

    Every one of us needs to be aware of this continuing direction of travel and I personally urge people to work together to oppose it wherever they come across it, or our party will be fundamentally changed under our noses.

  • Alex Macfie 21st Mar '24 - 1:26pm

    @David Allen: Only people who follow politics in detail will be aware even of the existence of these unofficial pseudo-elections. This is a small minority of voters. For this process to work, it would mean participating candidates other than the winner standing aside or the vast majority of anti-Tory voters using the result as their overriding consideration on the ballot paper — rather a tall order when the vast majority won’t have heard of them.
    Good intentions are all very well, but what matters is practical reality, and the Lib Dems are right not to get involved in this easily gamable process.

  • Reform at 15% now, they could well win the coming Blackpool South by election and throw everyone’s General Election forecasts into the Irish Sea.

    We of course languish in single figures

  • David Allen 21st Mar '24 - 4:59pm

    Alex – So, annoying the voters is perfectly fine, provided you think most people won’t have noticed what you are doing?

  • Alex Macfie 21st Mar '24 - 7:26pm

    @David Allen: It wouldn’t annoy the voters, because most of them won’t care very much (like I said, only the politically engaged and partisan will care). Besides, from what I can tell, such initiatives are being considered mainly in 3- or 4- way fights (where supposedly there is a split “anti-Tory” vote), rather than where where there is an obvious challenger to the Tory. Voters tend not to care much about local controversies in some other part of the country, so our refusal to participate in a “people’s primary” in a seat where Labour and Lib Dems are tied for 2nd place will not affect our chances in somewhere like Esher & Walton. The general election contests in seats where the challenger is not so obvious will be won on campaigning, not on who won some pseudo-election with about 5% of the electorate participating.

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