As you no doubt will have noticed if you’ve looked at a newspaper in the last few months, the Lib Dems are currently being ravaged by scandals concerning sexual harrassment, largely revolving around Lord Chris Rennard and Mike Hancock MP. I’m not going to comment on those particular allegations – I don’t have anything to say that hasn’t been said before. All I will say is that it’s a shame that some in the media and at the grassroots of other parties are trying to frame this as a Lib Dem specific problem. A culture of sexism and abuse of power exists across all major parties, and what I’ve heard about other parties in private is far worse than anything that’s now public about the Lib Dems. The other party leaders aren’t seeking to make political capital out of the allegations because they know they could rapidly find themselves hoisted on the petard of any criticism they make.
LDHQ is making changes – bringing policies and procedures up to date (which doesn’t affect any of the cases in progress as they can’t be applied retroactively), and appointing a pastoral care officer who can be a point of contact for all party members and staff. That appointment was one of the recommendations of the Morrissey Report commissioned by the party. The Report seems to have filtered into party culture – most people I talk to are aware of its existence, broadly aware of its content, and actively mention it in conversations.
Rock The Boat is putting pressure on the leadership from the grassroots, to make sure that the overarching problem isn’t ignored. However, as a party we’re naturally resistant to top-down edicts from the Leader or President about how we should behave, and that’s a good thing. For everybody complaining that Nick as leader doesn’t have the ability to impose his will on the membership on this issue, imagine how it would be if he had the ability to do so on other issues! Some people may be resistant to change because they themselves have skeletons in their closet – many of our members have been around for decades, since a time when it was more culturally acceptable (though obviously not morally OK) to behave in certain ways towards subordinates, women etc. and are concerned that their past behaviour will be judged by modern standards. Still, we should look at ways we can improve awareness from the grassroots of the party and reduce the risk of harrassment within our ranks.
One thing that’s clear is that the cases currently in the public eye have one thing in common – that complaints were made early on, but either ignored or not handled correctly. As a local party officer, I’ve not had training in how to recognise problems or handle complaints, and I believe this is common for volunteers across parties. I’m hoping that up-to-date training will become available post-Morrissey Report, but if it’s run only as a voluntary effort at Federal Conference, then only the people with the time and money to attend Conference, and the will to attend the training. The latter part is crucial – the kind of person who would voluntarily attend such training is probably the kind of person who doesn’t need to. Unfortunately, the Federal Party has no ability to mandate officers to attend training.
At the North West Lib Dems executive yesterday, I made a proposal which was accepted by the rest of the Executive. I think it combines the best of carrot and stick – making training on harrassment part of a wider package to increase its overall value, and providing an incentive to attend / disincentive not to. I also think that regional parties are close enough to local parties for this to work without seeming like a diktat from on high. In outline, we agreed that the region should:
- Create a package of training for local party officers focussed on:
- Dealing with complaints and recognising harrassment
- Valuing and improving diversity
- Local party officer roles and responsibilities
- Work with party trainers throughout the region to make it available as locally as possible
- Advertise the package to local party execs and invite them to attend it (not until after the Euros this year; in Jan/Feb in future years)
- Consider the local party’s attendance on the training when it comes to allocating support and resources from the Regional Party to local parties
- Work with the party’s national Pastoral Care Officer and Training Officer on the above
I’m not sure how this’ll work in other regions – I get the impression that the NW regional party is particularly effective compared to others. But it’d be good to see other regions be proactive on this as well, and by working with LDHQ we can include whatever they’re doing in our work. I have offered to lead on this for the regional party and will make sure I monitor progress, and I hope we can begin to offer the training after the European elections and as ongoing work in future years. Everybody has a responsibility to challenge the harm done to our fellow party members by abuse of power – whether it’s the particular power afforded by elected office or employment, or the general power imbalance of the patriarchy. We must make sure that all party members, particularly those in positions of responsibility, have the tools they need to meet that responsibility.
The Liberal Democrats have a very visible problem with diversity. If you look at our MPs, they don’t reflect the population of this country – particularly when it comes to ethnicity. None of our major political parties do, but the Lib Dems don’t have any BME faces on the front benches, and are noticeably under-represented on gender balance too.
I’m going to suggest some things that grassroots members can do to improve diversity in the party so feel free to skip to the end, but first a quick overview and some background:
Does the lack of visible diversity mean that the Lib Dems are “worse” on diversity than other parties? Not necessarily – other parties have chosen to tackle the symptom of visible diversity. However, it doesn’t seem like they’re particularly egalitarian as a result; there seems to be a lot of rancour and unhappiness in their grassroots at measures like all-women shortlists, and some of the stories I’ve heard of common, unchallenged discrimination have startled me.
There is an argument that it’s a matter of demographics – that we selected women and BME candidates in 2010 who weren’t elected as we lost seats rather than gained. I’ve heard tell that there’s a smooth diversity gradient from party members to approved candidates to selected candidates to elected MPs. But the statistics are not forthcoming.
The Lib Dems have repeatedly decided at our conference that the techniques used by other parties are illiberal and don’t address the root problems. Some argue that making our party more visibly diverse would make us more attractive to a more diverse potential membership. However, I’m going to look at what the party is and could do to improve diversity in keeping with Conference’s opposition to measures such as enforced shortlists.
Some people will ask why this is a problem and why it’s something we should put effort into; it’s not like we forbid anybody from joining the party or getting approved as a candidate, after all. However, if we believe as liberals that everybody has the same potential regardless of background, and that there should be no barriers to achieving that background, then measurable achievement in the party (membership, approved candidates, councillors, elected MPs) should end up pretty much resembling the general population. Of course as the pools of people get smaller the statistics get woolier, but it’s still clear that we’re a way off.
So either we’re wrong in our assumption about people’s potential, in which case we should pack up and forget about this liberalism lark, or there are some barriers to diversity within the party. I’ll assume in good faith that those barriers are not deliberate or conscious, but they are present. They are also problematic, because they mean that there are liberal people from a wide range of backgrounds whose potential we’re not making use of as a party, and that means we’re all losing out.
If we’re going to grow a more diverse party from the grassroots, we need to take action. We’ve decided on what action we don’t want to take as a party, but we need a better idea of what we do.
The party’s main project to improve diversity is the Leadership Programme – targetted training and support for people seeking candidate approval from under-represented demographics. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, but it’s poorly advertised, heavily centralised and relatively small scale.
Here are things that you, as an ordinary party member, can do to play your part. It’ll take actual effort, but a more diverse party is a stronger party, a bigger party, a more active party and a more successful party – and most of them aren’t hard. Importantly, none of them are things you wouldn’t do anyway; this is about focus, not special treatment. I don’t do brilliantly at all the things I’m going to talk about here, but I try to do some of them, and that’s a good starting point…
Learn About Diversity
As somebody who’s been on the exec of a national diversity SAO since 2007, I didn’t think that there was much I could learn about diversity. The party’s training proved me wrong. The paragraphs above about how visible diversity should be used as evidence of structural barriers rather than as a target to hit, and why a lack of diversity is a problem for all of us, are what I took away from Issan Ghazni’s diversity training at party conference. There’s a general acceptance in the party that we are liberals and don’t discriminate, and that diversity is good, but relatively little understanding of why it’s good and how to encourage it.
Local party officers (particularly Chair and Membership Development) should be encouraged to go through the party’s diversity training, by LDHQ and regional parties. As a local party member, ask your MDO about making the training available to the local party exec, possibly at a regional conference which can be easier to attend than Federal.
Reach Out to Diversity
Our party’s membership is increasing, and we all need to do our part to encourage that. We should all be canvassing support and trying to recruit supporters as members – we can’t rely on people joining the party without talking to us any more. This is an ideal opportunity for us to improve our diversity. Make sure you’re putting effort into recruiting people who will improve diversity in your local party. As an ordinary member, make sure this is on your membership development officer’s radar.
Lib Dems do community politics, which often involves working with existing community groups such as business associations, faith organisations et al. Make sure that your campaigners are engaging with diverse organisations rather than just the ones that are perhaps easier for less diverse campaigners to reach.
Welcome Diversity in your Membership
There’s a natural tendency for people to associate with people like ourselves. This makes improving diversity harder. We need to make a conscious effort to overcome this subconscious bias.
Think about your local party’s activities – are they biased towards a particular demographic? A lot of Lib Dem local parties meet in pubs; they’re convenient community facilities, but can put off some women and certain faiths including Islam. Is there somewhere more neutral you could meet? This can be hard, particularly on a budget if you have to pay for use of a village / church hall, but consider the occasions (such as General Meetings and policy debates) where it’ll have most effect. Perhaps you could occasionally go for a coffee after a canvas session rather than a pint. As an ordinary member, make sure your local party secretary or events person is thinking about this.
Not every event needs to be appealing to every member, but there does need to be something for everyone – if a member doesn’t feel welcome at any events, why stay engaged with the local party?
Empower a Diverse Executive
Having a diverse membership who feel welcome in your local party is a fantastic step, and if your local party can achieve this then you should be proud. However, we need to make sure that their voices are being heard – a diverse membership will provide different perspectives and ideas which will benefit your local party as a whole. There are many ways to achieve this but one is through making sure your local party exec is diverse – far too many in my experience consist almost exclusively of old white men.
This post is a couple of months too late for AGM season and elections, but your new exec should have some spaces available for co-option. Identify members who can bring wider perspective to your campaigning, and encourage them to be co-opted onto the executive.
Engage with Diversity Groups
The party has groups dedicated to most diversity strands under the umbrella of the Diversity Engagement Group (DEG). From LGBT+ Lib Dems to Lib Dem Women to EMLD, BUILD and Chinese Liberal Democrats to LDDA and others, there are expert groups out there who can provide advice and assistance to help you improve diversity. One of my 2014 goals for LGBT+ Lib Dems is to finish our Local Government Guide and create a training module on engaging with LGBT+ communities.
Each regional party should have an identified diversity officer – make sure your local party exec knows who this is and ask what they’re doing to help local parties promote diversity.
Talk and Think about Diversity!
This is something we can all do easily – make sure that the conversation about diversity is not lost. In everything you do as a Lib Dem, think about diversity and how you can improve it. Challenge yourself and others in your blog posts, on Twitter, in local party meetings.
And remember that diversity is probably more complicated than you think it is; a cisgendered man, gay or otherwise, may not have a great grasp of the full spectrum of LGBT+ diversity. Individuals can be diverse in multiple ways – BME women have a different life experience to white women, or disabled LGBT+ people compared to able-bodied.
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 concept of “energy” is increasingly influencing my thoughts on Lib Dem campaigning of late. We all know, yet have had some difficulty in expressing, that a good campaign team has a positive vibe – that a small team of volunteers will feed off each other’s successes, support and encouragement, and this virtuous cycle will help everybody involved do more and feel better.
While the Lib Dems were probably the first political party to embrace the Internet as a method of member communication back in the CIX days, today’s mass adoption of ‘net connectivity and social networking sites like Facebook mean that there are dozens of places for Lib Dem members and supporters to have discussions – some public, some private, some open to non-members, others not. They are set up and sustained by people who like the party, outside of party control, and there’s no central index of them.
With the media’s negative narrative still raging against our party members, and with many local parties still moribund, these groups have done a great job of generating energy. People have felt that they have a safe haven, a place to discuss the party and its members without being attacked by knee-jerking rhetoricians. I’ve seen members inspiring each other, and talking about what makes them remain a part of the Lib Dem family.
The problem with online discussion groups, political or otherwise, can be that the lack of focus means there’s nowhere for all that positive energy to go. That can lead to long, pointless, nitpicking debates, bickering and infighting. Those of us familiar with online groups, mailing lists and Usenet have seen the patterns before – though Facebook offers neither the threading nor killfile features of email/Usenet. This not only wastes energy that could be used for something productive, but also kills off the positive energy-generating function of the group.
Of course, telling volunteers how they should be spending their time is like cat-herding; it generates resentment. A party like the Lib Dems largely follows the bazaar model, with people scratching their own itches and addressing the problems that particularly annoy them. Some people just want a place to blow off steam before arguing against trolls online; others are already out pounding the pavement with Focus, and chilling out online when they get home. Some people aren’t interested in anything in anything other than fluffy chat with fellow Lib Dems.
However, I’m finding that a lot of people simply need to know how to get more involved, rather than being told that they should. I’ve spent time online advising people how to get involved in local and regional party execs, join SAOs, write policy, campaign in their communities, write and deliver Focus, and all the other Grassroots Liberal Democracy stuff.
These groups have reached members and supporters that the local, regional and federal parties have missed. Even with the increased importance on member engagement in LDHQ, that top-down approach will never reach or suit everybody. We should welcome these groups and not try to control them – but we should not forget that there are productive ways to tap into the energy generated from camaraderie before it turns in on itself. If those of us who are more experienced in the campaigning and internal workings of the party can advise, support and encourage these energetic and keen members, it’ll help them get more out of the party, and mean that together we can all achieve more.
The other night, I caught the tail end of a discussion on Twitter, wherein Andy Emmerson had decided to leave the party, seemingly because his local party were inactive and unresponsive. Fortunately, by the time I looked, he’d decided to transfer membership to a more active local party instead. I was pleased to see Tim Farron taking part in the discussion, which spurred a lot of debate and raised some important considerations, such as the disconnect between online Lib Dem communities and the real world, particularly for members in geographically distant or less active constituencies. However, the point I wanted to talk about today was the one raised about Liberal Democrat HQ providing training to local party membership secretaries and membership development officers.
The party’s emphasis during the Chris Rennard years was on winning elections to the near exclusion of all else, but that was never going to be sustainable in the long term. Party membership is by no means in the terrible state that Polly Toynbee would like us to believe, but fewer people are joining us unprompted, or staying with us without good reason, given the relentless negative media coverage of the last 18 months. Still, local parties which are putting some of their energy into recruitment and retention are getting good results at all levels, and we need to promote and create resources to help them to do that.
As readers of this blog will know, my experience on joining the party was pretty awful. I had no contact from my local party for years until I moved away, other than the local MP coming round to ask me to deliver Focus. My main motivation in starting this blog was to share good practice and information to save other people from the same fate. I’ve put my money where my mouth is and been a local party membership development officer. So I know first-hand that it’s bloody hard. Like most positions, there’s very little idea before the fact of what the roles entail or how best to carry them out. There exists a guide to local party exec roles which has some ideas, which should be available on Huddle, but it’s not widely known.
I’m not keen on suggestions that as a party we should be reliant on LDHQ to do things on behalf of local parties. In this particular instance there’s actually already quite a lot that the party at all levels can provide to help local parties help themselves. The first thing to consider also is lines of communication – there are membership officers in your nearby local parties whom you can contact for advice and support, along with your region’s membership officers, and the Membership Department at LDHQ. Of course, there are plenty of other membership officers online, using Facebook, LDV fora and other communications outside the party hierarchies.
On the national level, the Department for Campaigns and Skills has realised the need to improve training in membership engagement, development and recruitment, and the last couple of Federal Conferences have seen more modules and sessions in this area alongside the ones on campaign skills etc. Of course, not every local party membership officer, or potential, is going to be able to make Federal Conference. Regional Conferences usually have small training programmes, and regions run training days – particularly if a local party, or group of them, request training in membership activities.
Formal training might not work for everybody. While rewarding, it involves organisation, travel, and volunteer party-accredited training. So resources to help membership officers engage, recruit and develop members are needed, which can be distributed more easily. I’m working on a membership engagement pack, which I’ll be distributing to local parties in my region in the New Year. It contains template letters and artwork, some good practice and FAQs, but most importantly a series of checklists, starting from the very basics that every local party should do regardless of size, to the sort of thing a party with plenty of volunteers and activists can achieve to expand further.
This post is designed to give local party membership officers some hints as to where they might go to get advice, training and information about how to develop their membership. It’s not intended to provide specific details on engagement and recruitment – I’m not going to put those on the Internet where activists of all parties can read them! But please do circulate this to membership officers and officers-elect, and let’s see what we can do to make sure that membership of the Liberal Democrats is fun, engaging, rewarding and inspiring for all our members.
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.