Home > Conference > Time for an Online Federal #ldconf?

Time for an Online Federal #ldconf?

July 10, 2011

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.

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Categories: Conference
  1. July 10, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    As a Federal Conference rep your suggestions would require a radical rewrite of Federal Conference standing orders (which are part of the party’s constitution).

    It would therefore require (at least) a constitutional amendment and a majority of conference reps to agree.

    I agree registration and hotel costs are borne by the conference reps, however married reps can share a hotel room and many reps travel together to keep costs down.

    It is hard on those on low-incomes however to take (over the year) a week off of work, pay for about seven days of accomodation (~£350-£400 or more) as well as transport costs.

    BBC Parliament already streams coverage from the whole of the conference (as it did last year) on BBC IPlayer. It also repeats the coverage on the BBC Parliament channel once the conference has finished (so if you time it right you can go back to your hotel room in the evening and see yourself speaking in the morning).

    As to the role of those chairing (and vice-chairing) conference, well they can already say (within reason) what they like.

    Conference is not just the formal bit that happens in the conference hall, much is decided in conversations outside of the main hall or at fringe events.

    Plenty in conference already use Twitter on their mobile phones to tweet (and read tweets) about conference.

    I think the party already records video for the conference which for events such as the party leader’s speech are then put on Youtube.

    There is however a part of the party (over the age of 30) that still sees the Internet and Twitter with suspicion and is going to resist any attempt to make the party more open and accountable to the public and wider party membership.

    • July 10, 2011 at 4:05 pm

      I’m aware that it would require amending the standing orders, and the conference guide I linked to discusses the other benefits of conference.

      • July 10, 2011 at 5:47 pm

        I read the conference guide you linked to, it doesn’t mention whether suspended members of the party can attend regional or federal conference.

        In practice (although not explicitly written into the rules) the party doesn’t allow suspended members to attend any meeting of members, whether they are entitled to be there by virtue of the party’s constitution or not.

        Yes party members can submit questions to Federal Conference. However some are rejected outright before the conference, others they refuse to take citing “lack of time” and then finish ten minutes early!

        Regarding training events, the party doesn’t issue membership cards to people anymore in an attempt to cut costs. Regarding the Gender Balance Task Force running women’s only events, surely men are part of the solution to gender balance too?

        • July 10, 2011 at 5:52 pm

          That’s because it’s not a comprehensive list of every rule about conference. It’s a guide for grassroots members who’ve not been to conference before.

          The party does still issue membership cards. As for women-only training, I’m not going to get side-tracked into that debate.

          • July 10, 2011 at 6:03 pm

            Regarding membership cards last time one of us renew our membership, instead of a card a letter arrived with a tear off slip at the bottom stating they’d got rid of membership cards on cost grounds.

            The tear off slip did have the details on (eg membership number, expiry date etc) that the old card had on.

            However a number of women (one a PPC at the time, another on the approved candidates list) either boycotted such events at conference as they didn’t agree with them being women-only or weren’t allowed to bring their male carer with them.

            However the party (and taxpayer) is funding it through generous yearly amounts to the Campaign for Gender Balance. From what I remember it is a larger amount then that that goes to Liberal Youth.

            I don’t disagree with its aims, I just think you can only get progress if you’re honest enough to state that the Campaign for Gender Balance, is basically just a campaign group run by women to get more women as candidates and (ultimately) elected!

            Most successful campaigns to get a candidate elected (male or female) manage to have both genders represented as part of the campaign team as they actually want to appeal to more than 51% of society!

            It has been 100 years since women got the right to vote, yet they do not make 50% of our councillors or MPs.

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