Party Conferences #ldconf

June 19, 2011
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Lib Dem Voice "Golden Dozen" #226

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

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

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.

The Bar

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.

Glee Club

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.

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