Time for an Online Federal #ldconf?
The recent discussions over the data requirements for Liberal Democrat Federal Conference have sparked wider discussion about the Federal Conference and the role it plays in the party’s life and policy making. It’s why I rushed to finish my guide to conference for the grassroots series, to add a bit more information to the debate (though I’ve yet to write the guide on policy making, because I need to do a little more research).
We Lib Dems are rightly proud of our party’s commitment to democracy in our internal procedures, and policy making is no different. Each local party elects voting reps, proportional to its membership, and those voting reps vote on policy motions at conference. The reason for the voting reps, rather than one member one vote as used for Presidential (and some other) elections, is to try to minimise the influence of geography – otherwise a conference in e.g. the Midlands will get more Midlands members, giving them more say in our policy. However, even with this measure in place, there are still limitations in place – whether it’s not being able to afford the cost of registration, or hotels, or time work, or childcare responsibilities, or data sharing concerns. Historically, there wasn’t much we could do about that – making our policy in one room gives us the opportunity for debate, for amendment and so on. There’s little to stop a party body or local party from fundraising to sponsor delegates to avoid the financial restrictions, but what local party would seriously engage its limited resources there rather than to campaigning?
There are three significant elements to the policy process on the conference floor – listening to what others (particularly the mover and seconder) have to say, having your own say, and voting. BBC Parliament already covers a lot of our conference live – but not all, and we couldn’t expect them to do so without their breaks for news bulletins and other scheduled programming. Back in February 2009, London saw the Convention on Modern Liberty, a multi-streamed debate on all aspects of civil liberties at the height of Labour’s assault. The main chamber of the convention was streamed live on the Internet, both to users at home and to satellite conventions in Manchester, Bristol, Edinburgh and elsewhere. Internet streaming of the main hall during debates would be pretty feasible and cheap in this day and age, and would allow many of our members, particularly the younger and less well off, to listen to the debates in the conference hall.
The Convention used Twitter as a way for the satellite conventions to feed back questions to the speakers in London – a relatively simple method, but one we could probably improve on. I don’t think that it’d necessarily be feasible to have two-way streaming for the speeches from the podium, but it should be possible to allow online attendees to make interjections which possibly could be read out by the vice-Chair (who currently doesn’t have much to do during the debate). Mixing online voting and a hand count in the debating hall would be tricky – one option might be handsets in the auditorium to count the votes cast there automatically, removing the need for a motion to count a vote. Fortunately, there’s no privacy in Lib Dem conference floor voting, which makes moving the process online much much simpler.
I’m not going to try and propose a complete solution here, because I don’t want to get bogged down in technical detail (other than to push for open standards and free software to avoid unnecessarily excluding people based on their choice of computer operating system). Nor would I recommend replacing Federal conference with an online-only event – there’s far more to conference than policy making. But we might be able to open up our policy making to a wider range of democratically-elected local party representatives, at fairly minimal cost, and I think that’s a discussion worth having.