In the middle of the local election campaign, Federal Conference Committee have decided to ignore last September’s conference vote against their controversial CRB checks for delegates, and are holding a one-week “listening exercise” advertised on an unofficial party-aligned website. I’ve drafted the following response, and post it here for two reasons – to check I’ve not missed anything obvious, and to give guidance to others on a response (though the comments on the Lib Dem Voice article pretty much sum it up).
Coincidentally, I have a list of Brighton conference venues for hire courtesy of a friend who’s been looking at running a tech conference there. If FCC insist on imposing accreditation again, I will be organising an alternative conference for those disenfranchised by these measures. Hopefully there will not be more to come on that later because FCC will back down.
Some people have been discussing standing for Federal Conference Committee as a result of this, but since I don’t live in London I can’t really do that. As a voting rep however I will support FCC candidates who are opposed to disenfranchising our elected members through imposing unnecessary and useless CRB checks.
Again, if you oppose this security theatre, do e-mail FCC to let them know on email@example.com – while I suspect that with under six months to go, the decision has already been made, we can’t let FCC claim that nobody responded to their poorly-advertised “consultation” and use that as an excuse to do what they want. Also, please vote for this article on LibDig, and share it on Twitter and FaceBook, so more party members will see it and respond.
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.
Since my last post on the new data requirements for Liberal Democrat Federal Conference (I refuse to call them security requirements, because I have no reason to believe that they provide any extra security), there has been some movement on the issues raised.
It seems that the decision to exclude anybody from conference will be advised by the police, but the decision will rest with the Party (though it seems to rest with the chair of FCC and the Chief Executive, rather than the Chief Steward as the Constitution states). Police have confirmed that the computer system used for attendee information is separate from the normal police computer systems, and is used only for conference accreditation – and that attendees will be able to have their information removed from the system on request.
However, it’s also been confirmed that the background checks used are Criminal Records Bureau checks, and these still present a problem for many people, as I’ve previously outlined. Some people are so unhappy with the idea of submitting to a CRB check, even if they have no criminal record, that they will not attend Conference this time. The current alternative plan proposed by FCC seems to be that people in certain specific circumstances can identify themselves to the conference team who will make sure their CRB check is ‘sensitively’ handled, but that seems to create at least as many problems as it solves.
I’m a big fan of Bruce Schneier, the American security guru whose book Beyond Fear is a must-read for anybody interested in security policy, from whether you should buy a burglar alarm or pay for contents insurance, to whether your country should have a national identity database. It doesn’t tell you what to think on these issues, but how to think about them to produce meaningful conclusions.
One of the things Schneier talks about is trust between parties. As it stands, all the background checking is being done by the police, who have no inherent reason to trust any Liberal Democrat. They will put us through CRB checks, and if we pass, deem us trustworthy. However, the Lib Dems are something like a family. A lot of us know each other well, and can vouch for each other. I have suggested to an FCC member that we investigate some kind of transitive reputational trust – where Lib Dems can vouch for other Lib Dems.
Perhaps if one or more local or regional party officers vouched for a member, then that member could avoid the CRB check – without having to give a reason for the avoidance. There are a number of different possibilities and safeguards, including not letting a voucher vouch for more than one or two attendees, but the principle is clear. I don’t think there’d be any way around having the people doing the vouching requiring a CRB check, if only to give the police reason to trust the vouchers, but it seems many attendees don’t have a problem with this.
Discussions on this remaining point of accreditation seem to have reached an impasse, with one side saying that CRB checks are simply unacceptable and the other saying that they are mandatory. I’m hoping that a more flexible system based around the idea I’ve proposed here will help move things forward, and I hope the FCC members will consider this approach and discuss it with the West Midlands Police.
Regardless of the concerns over conference security, I want to add to my Grassroots Liberal Democracy series to talk about party conferences – what they’re for, and how to get the most out of them. There are two main types of conference in the Liberal Democrats – Federal Conferences, for the entire party, and State / Regional conferences which are for Wales, Scotland or specific regions of the UK. Every Liberal Democrat party member is eligible to attend Federal conferences, and the State or Regional conferences relevant to their location.
Regional and State conferences tend to be one-day affairs in Spring and Autumn; Spring Federal Conference takes place over a weekend, and Autumn Federal Conference is a very long weekend, now Sat-Tue or Sat-Wed. Regional and State conferences will have the conference floor, exhibition and training on a smaller scale to Federal Conference, but are easier to attend since they’re one-day affairs, and cheaper to register for.
There are a lot of things going on at a conference, often simultaneously, so it’s impossible to do absolutely everything. Here I’m going to talk about different areas – the conference floor, the fringe, the training rooms, the exhibition, the bar and Glee Club – as well as how you can attend.
Ways To Attend
As a Member of Conference
While every party member is eligible to attend conference, to be a Member of Conference (i.e. somebody who can speak and contribute in policy debates), you have to pay a conference registration fee. This can cause problems for some people attending, though the “early bird” registration is cheaper, and Liberal Youth among others will pay their conference representative’s fees. There’s nothing to stop local parties from doing the same, though few do. Both day passes and full weekend / week passes are available.
If every Lib Dem who turned up at a conference could vote on policy motions, then the voting in the party would be biased towards those parties closest to the Conference – and some parts of the country don’t have suitable facilities for hosting a Party Conference, particularly now we’re a party of Government. So each local party elects a number of voting representatives, based on the membership of that local party, to attend Conference and vote on its behalf. People who don’t get elected as voting reps can still attend conference as non-voting members, and make speeches in debates to influence others’ votes.
As an Exhibitionist
Organisations who book stalls in the Exhibition (see below) get a number of Exhibitor passes. These do not allow you to speak or vote in policy debates, but can usually be used to get around most of Conference. Volunteering to spend time on an exhibition stall for a party organisation in exchange for a pass can be a cheaper way to look around. Also, the party leader does a tour of the exhibition each Conference, so this can be a good way to get a photo of you shaking hands with Nick.
As a Steward
The Stewarding Team are the life blood of a Liberal Democrat conference. They are hard-working volunteers who deal with every problem that crops up – often by just being in the right place at the right time, and referring the problem to a more senior member of the team. Volunteering as a steward will mean work, but can be a fantastic way to get a wide and detailed overview of Conference and its goings on.
The Conference Floor
The main room at conference is where the formal business of conference happens. The formal business includes policy making, which I will cover elsewhere, but also various party bodies such as the Federal Executive, Conference Committee, a few Specified Associated Organisations etc. will present reports to Conference and answer questions (many of which have to be submitted in advance). There are also Business Motions, which are about the way the party conducts its business.
The conference floor will also usually be home to the Rally, the big kick-off event designed to get people in a good mood for the conference. It’s also used for the Leader’s Speech at the end of the Conference. Increasingly, Lib Dem ministers will also hold Q&A sessions on the conference floor, and conference attendees can put questions directly to them, improving our party’s accountability and democracy.
The Fringe consists of events which are not part of the main Conference agenda (or training). Traditionally they have occurred outside the main Conference venue and been accessible to party members who are not Members of Conference, though this may change due to increased restrictions now we’re in Government.
Fringe meetings can be organised by commercial organisations, charities or party bodies, and generally take the form of a panel discussion with a mixture of Lib Dem and non-Lib Dem speakers, with questions from the audience. There are also reception events, where the focus is more on mingling, networking and conversation. Fringe meetings which provide food at mealtimes are very popular, and ones with free wine doubly so!
Attending a fringe can be a great way to spark a debate on a subject that particularly interests you, or to hear opposing viewpoints on a particular issue. Reception events are often focussed around a particular theme (such as LGBT campaigning or a regional party) and can be a good way to meet people with similar interests. One fringe that campaigning Lib Dems will pay attention to is the Penhaligon Awards, named for former Liberal MP for Truro, David Penhaligon. Penhaligon was a keen community campaigner and the Penhaligon Award is given annually to the local party using the best campaigning techniques.
The Training Rooms
Training often happens in a hotel near conference rather than in the conference centre itself. Again, training sessions have traditionally been outside the main conference venue, though this may change. Either way, they are only available to party members, so take your membership card if you’re going. Training sessions are usually organised by the Campaigns Department and ALDC.
There are training sessions on a variety of themes, from the intensely practical (how to canvass on the doorstep; how to use various software packages for campaigning), to the more general (time management skills, diversity awareness). Some training sessions are run by the Gender Balance Task Force and aimed at women campaigners and candidates, but most are open to all party members. Some people go to Conference largely for the free training opportunities, and it’s one of the ways we make sure Lib Dems are skilled grassroots campaigners all around the country.
The Exhibition is a set of stalls inside the main conference venue. Many organisations will have stalls in the exhibition, from party bodies to charities to corporations. It’s a good way to find out about active party bodies (the inactive ones are unlikely to be there, or to have fewer people on their stall), and other things you might be interested in. Traditionally the regional party responsible for the town we’re in will have a stall, as will the tourist agency of not only this Conference’s town, but also next.
The Exhibition is also home to the stall of Liberal Democrat Image, where you can get campaigning resources. You’ll be a lot more convincing on the doorstep if you’ve got a Lib Dem-branded clipboard or badge, and their membership sign-up booklets can be kept in a wallet for those chance encounters with potential members. However, if you’re wearing the polo shirt, the baseball cap, the tie, the scarf, the badges and the stickers all at the same time, you might seem a little too keen for potential voters!
The Exhibition is also often used as the venue for scheduled photo opportunities with Lib Dem MPs and ministers, so if you want that photo with Vince Cable for your next Focus leaflet, make sure you check your Conference Guide for the time and place.
I’m using the word “bar” to refer to socialising and networking, in a fairly generic sense – not all of this happens in a bar. Though quite a lot of it does.
At a Liberal Democrat conference, you will find people from party bodies, think tanks, councillors, MPs and Ministers all rubbing shoulders with other party members from around the country. This doesn’t quite mean that you can grab Nick Clegg by the shoulder and bend his ear for an hour about Land Value Taxation (though you never know…), but it is a great opportunity to meet people, find out what makes them tick, and make friends. As mentioned in my introductory piece, my first years in the party were lonely ones, and for people from inactive or downright self-destructive local parties it can be great to meet people in a different situation.
The main place to meet people is the bar of the official conference hotel, but these are usually horribly expensive and get crowded very quickly. Some organisations like Liberal Youth will arrange social meets at Conference, usually by Twitter. A lot of party activists will default to the nearest Wetherspoons or other real ale-serving pub outside the Conference – keep your eyes peeled for the yellow lanyards.
I couldn’t let an article on Conference go without mentioning Glee Club, the traditional Federal Conference sing-along. A rowdy and raucous occasion, Glee Club consists of singing satirical and often downright rude songs about the Liberal Democrats, our MPs and other parties. It’s usually a noisy, sweaty, and often drunken affair, and a great way for people to let their hair down on the last night of Conference. If you’ve not been before, go to one at Autumn – it’s much better attended than Spring – and give it an hour or so to get going before you turn up.
The Glee Club song book is published by the never-satisfied Awkward Squad behind Liberator magazine, and is available at every Glee Club for a couple of quid. It has to be seen to be believed – my first experience of Glee Club was walking in to find Baron Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon standing on a chair in the middle of the crowd, singing something very rude about Tony Blair at the top of his voice while conducting an MP on the piano.
Summary and Survival Tips
Lib Dem conferences have a variety of activities going on. The range at Federal Conferences can be truly bewildering, and dealing with clashes can be awkward. However, they present great opportunities to party members to meet other Lib Dems, get involved in policy decisions, speech making or debates, get valuable training, and have a great time.
The most important tip for a multi-day conference is to look after yourself. While it’s possible, particularly for younger members, to stay up in the conference hotel bar until 3am and be in a training session at 9, remembering to sleep and eat helps you maximise your involvement and enjoyment. It’s perfectly possible and reasonable to take some time out from the hectic schedule and just visit a local tourist attraction, or enjoy some peace and quiet watching daytime telly in your hotel room (and if you’ve slept in for a policy debate, you can often catch it on BBC Parliament while still in your pajamas.)
I’ve only been to about 8 or 9 Federal Conferences, and half a dozen regionals, but I’ve taken something different out of every one and had a great time at all.
The following is an article, submitted to Lib Dem Voice for publication, which hasn’t yet been published or rejected… and events are moving quickly on this one, so I’m going to make it public here. I’d like to add No2ID and Lib Dem activist James Baker’s observations about the powers the police have to use and share the provided information even within the Data Protection Act, and a link to a grassroots web petition on this issue (though why they didn’t use party tool ourCampaign escapes me).
With the opening of registration for the Autumn Liberal Democrat conference yesterday, the first details have emerged of registrants needing to provide information to the police for “security checks”.
Looking at the Lib Dem blogosphere this morning, it’s clear that people are deeply unhappy with the requirements. I’m going to try to explain what the problem is, how it’s come about and what we might do about it.
What Information Is Required?
The pass application guidelines make it clear what is needed. First off, an up-to-date photo compliant with the new passport guidelines (which exist to make automated facial biometric recognition easier) for your conference pass.
Secondly, either your passport number, driving license number or national insurance number. If you don’t have any of the latter, it seems to be possible to come to some kind of arrangement with Greater Manchester Police (who are doing the checks on behalf of Birmingham’s West Midlands Police).
What’s The Problem?
There’s a debate to be had about the amount of security that is proportionate to our needs. Certainly, it’s arguable that our Government ministers are a legitimate terrorist target. It’s arguable that checking that people aren’t coming in to Conference with obvious weapons is a sensible precaution (though nearly being told to surrender a 2″ steel ear piercing as a weapon at Sheffield was clearly ridiculous).
It’s also arguable that some people might be prepared to take more subtle steps to attack or embarrass the party inside our conference venue, and that attempting to pre-”vet” attendees is a way to detect those people. But this is where we start to run into more fundemental difficulties.
On the philosophical side, there’s the fact that our voting delegates are elected by our local parties with a democratic mandate to represent us; if those delegates are denied access by a third party, then those local parties are disenfranchised. Of course, there are existing procedures for local parties to appoint replacements when delegates can’t make Conference for whatever reason, but with the new, stricter approach to deadlines it might prove difficult to get such replacements in place.
Practically, there’s concern about how the police will use the information provided. In the absence of any other information, it’s reasonable to assume they’ll use it for Criminal Record Bureau checks, which have been shown to be error-prone on several occasions. There’s no information about what will happen with people whose passport has a different name from their party membership card – perhaps because they go by a pseudonym, or because they’re transgendered – and the police have a poor record of dealing with such situations respectfully and sensitively.
The biggest concern for me personally is the long-term storage and sharing of information, which you must consent to as part of the terms and conditions. Both the Liberal Democrat party and the police force will be permitted to hold your personal data, including those passport etc. details you provide, indefinitely; the police will be able to share them with other forces. The more places your personal data is stored, and the more detail is stored about it (and it’s hard to present a more tempting target for data theft than the information we’re being asked to provide) the greater the risk of accidental disclosure, let alone institutional abuse. There is no argument I can see which justifies mandatory holding on to the information provided for one conference,after that conference has finished.
How Did We Get Here?
Ultimately, the worst thing about this situation is that it comes across as yet another case of the Cowley Street ivory tower not listening to or communicating with the party grassroots. In January when I signed up for joint registration, I was warned I might need to provide “compulsory security information” for Birmingham (but not Sheffield). I asked what this might entail, and was told that details had not been finalised and I would be informed ASAP. I still have questions, which I’ve put to the
Conference team as well as outlining above.
The glib defence, which I have unfortunately heard from several party members this morning, is that “the police asked for this for our security”. This doesn’t wash with me – the police have asked for many things for our security; ACPO supported the largest compulsory state database of personal information in the West, claiming it was for our security against terrorism, and yet as Liberal Democrats we campaigned against the National Identity Register. It’s simply not good enough to
say “we need it for security” to a liberal.
There is a more nuanced argument, which may or may not be true – that we have to co-operate with the police to get public liability insurance for the conference, without which it cannot go ahead without risk of bankrupting the party.
If that is the case, then we need to be reassured that our Federal Conference Committee understood the privacy concerns, and have done their best to negociate with different police forces about requirements, and have gone with the venue and police force with the most liberal requirements. We haven’t had that – I’ve had (in my capacity as a local party secretary) an e-mail from the chair of the FCC encouraging me to help my members comply with the compulsory data sharing.
Where Do We Go From Here?
For all the Twitter shouting and counter-shouting, there’s very little information about the discussions which have gone on between FCC and West Midlands Police. A good starting point to the debate we need to have, to enable our party members to make informed decisions about whether they’re happy to attend the conference, would be for the FCC to apologise for springing this on us, and to provide information about what they’ve tried to do to respect our privacy. It may yet be possible
to challenge some of the conditions (particularly the indefinite storage ones).
One point that’s come across this morning relates to the effect on the debates within conference – if people who care about privacy choose not to attend, then the debates and votes will be biased towards people who do not care about privacy. For that reason alone some people with concerns about these matters may still wish to attend.
In the past, party members have not needed to be conference delegates to attend fringe meetings and training. This has started to change, with fringes at Liverpool held inside the main conference centre, and we need to confirm whether this is a matter of policy or convenience. I’ll be making sure my SAO’s AGM is open to people who do not choose to comply with the imposed conditions, and encourage others to do the same.
And again, Cowley Street need to learn the lesson that when you try to impose on grassroots liberals, they will react angrily and loudly, and both sides will accuse the other of damaging the reputation of the party. If the Parliamentary Party are going to try to work in coalition with the Tories with plenty of dialogue and respect, the Federal Party needs to do the same with its membership.