Is it time to kill conference?
Conference has been held up as the holy grail of party activity, and it has a special place in the mythology of Lib Dems. But times; the party, and politics have changed hugely since the conference hey days of the 70s and 80s.
It’s more of a hindrance than a help to engagement
Kid yourselves all you want, conference is hideously expensive and it stops lots of people getting involved. Accessibility funds go a tiny way to making this any better. In particular, it stops all of the people we supposedly want to engage with as a party from doing so. Conference is predominantly white, male and middle-class, and it has been for as long as most people can remember. Doing the same thing and expecting a different result is a road to failure. If engaging a more diverse membership is really what we want, then we have to change what we’re doing. The new party reforms are being wrapped in an idea of making the party, and politics in general, far more open and different from how things have been done before. If that’s true, then it’s time for conference to change.
No-one’s watching anymore
Conferences receive little coverage. Unless the letters fall from the wall behind you. The media presence at Liberal Democrat ones has fallen significantly since the days of coalition and our previous high point of 62 MPs. In July the BBC announced that its BBC Parliament channel would no longer air when Parliament is not sitting, which means no more live coverage of conference.
It has caused so many more problems than many want to admit. A big one is that makes conference a lot less accessible and welcoming for people. If you don’t drink, you can expect 101 questions about why not. If you’re a woman you can expect to be asked if you’re pregnant, especially if you’re a PPC. And it’s another thing that adds to the expense. Conference hotel bars definitely aren’t cheap and they’re not really reasonable either. If you want to stay and “network”, it can quickly become obscenely expensive over the course of a 4 day Autumn conference. And you can find your party career limited if you don’t stay and do the networking.
So what can we do instead?
You could take the extreme view and just can the whole thing. But conference was, at one point, good for engaging members and coming up with policy ideas. It needs a refresh rather than total destruction.
Building on the idea that we want to include people who may sign up to a national supporters’ scheme, one of the conferences could be turned into something that’s more like a Festival of Ideas that is open to both members and supporters. Members would be the only ones who could vote to adopt things as official party policy, but anyone could suggest an idea either for debate or further development. This is if we keep two conferences – if we move to having just one then this could be the first part of it.
Personally I think the main push of any change to conference has to be to make it more affordable and accessible. Helping people pay the current rate just perpetuates the current structure, and it’s this that needs to change. That means either conference has to be shorter or it has to be in a different type of venue to what we’ve become used to.
Elaine Bagshaw is the Parliamentary Spokesperson for Poplar and Limehouse and Hon. President of Liberal Democrat Expand. Elaine also serves on the Federal Board of the party, and the London Liberal Democrats Federal Executive.