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 firstname.lastname@example.org – 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.
One of the most senior figures (arguably the most senior) in the Liberal Democrats is the President of the Federal Party. The exact role of the President is buried in the depths of the Constitution, but Lady Mark Valladares, the consorthusband of current President Baroness Ros Scott, has prepared a guide to the sort of thing that being President involves.
A job that requires 30h/week of commitment, largely based in London, with no salary, as one of the most important people keeping the party together? No wonder most of the previous tenants have been South East-based, independently wealthy or supported by partners with income. People have invited me to stand, but I don’t have the money to do it instead of my day job, nor the time to do it on top. While I wouldn’t want anybody to stand for the Presidency just for a salary, I think it’s fundementally wrong that the closest thing to an official “voice of the grassroots” position de facto excludes most of our grassroots.
So does Andrew Hickey, an occasional commenter here and author of one of the sub-half-dozen Lib Dem blogs I make an effort to read. He’s set up a PledgeBank for 100 people to commit £10/month to financially support a Presidential candidate if she gets elected. I’ve committed to the pledge (and will do so for pretty much any candidate who is not based in the South East, independently wealthy, an MP etc.), and I would like people reading this to do so as well.
This isn’t about whether you like Jennie as a candidate. The Liberal Democrats should be about ideas, not money. The Presidential election should be about who has the best ideas for moving the Party forward, for representing the grassroots inside the Westminster bubble. It should not be about who can afford to stand.
I’m also going to suggest that the Federal Finance Committee look into significantly increasing the expenses / stipend for the President to allow a wider range of Liberal Democrats to compete for the most important jobs in the Party. Only then will we truly be able to elect the best possible President.