The Liberal Democrat Spring Conference was held at the Barbican in York from 11th to 13th March. This was my first Federal Conference and what an interesting experience it was too. I will not dwell on the details of the conference motions and speeches, with one or two exceptions, because they are reported in detail on other Lib Dem websites and blogs. I’d rather concentrate on the experience of attending a federal conference for the first time and I will finish this report with a few tips that may be helpful to other first time delegates.
I arrived in York and made my way to the venue. My excitement grew as I saw a number of people clutching their conference materials migrating towards the venue. I had read most of the conference papers in advance and had put together a list of sessions I would like to attend using the user-friendly Lib Dem Conference App on my smart phone (which I would recommend to anyone attending Federal Conference, particularly first-timers). However, for all my preparation, I had little idea what to expect during the days ahead.
After walking through the doors and collecting my fetching yellow lanyard, I was immediately approached by a friendly man that wanted to talk to me about the European referendum and he furnished me with some interesting literature from the stand behind him about the benefits of remaining in the EU. It was then that I realised that the benefits of the conference were not just to listen to speeches, meet like-minded people and contribute to debates and votes but also to consolidate one’s own views about various issues through conversations and supporting materials. This was not just a self-indulgent exercise to help hone one’s own ideas but would also help strengthen one’s ability to campaign and communicate the Lib Dem key messages to wider audiences. With 45 minutes to spare before the Conference Rally, I briefly visited many of the stands to collect materials and chat to a few people on the way.
To be among a large group of Lib Dems for three days was energising and even comforting. Though I had attended the conference with our local party Chair and Secretary, Edwin and Diana Simpson – both of whom are always very supportive and had made it clear they were there if I needed anything – I decided to go “off-road” and sit and socialise separately from my Doncaster colleagues. I found that everyone with whom I sat or had coffee was friendly and I met lots of people from around the country. I met many fellow first-timers too.
A number of important votes took place at York and the party had passed one member, one vote in Bournemouth six months earlier, so I felt that I was a genuine part of the democratic process of the party and my views were being recorded on many of the issues discussed – even though I didn’t quite pluck up the courage to speak myself. There were speeches and votes on economic policy, fracking, the digital age and private renters. These motions and votes were interspersed with a few rallying speeches, a Q&A with Tim Farron and some rather dryer but necessary committee reports. Put together, the motions, reports and speeches made for a fascinating insight into the workings and processes of the Lib Dems. I left the conference feeling that I had genuinely been a part of the party’s ‘fight back’.
There were two motions I found to be particularly interesting and insightful. Firstly, the vote to legalise and regulate cannabis, becoming the first major party to adopt that position. The motion was led by Norman Lamb MP, previously Minister for Care and Support in the coalition government. I have singled out this motion because it demonstrated to me that the Lib Dems are still a party that puts evidence-based policy first and continue to be a party that will investigate innovative solutions to our nation’s problems, no matter how radical they appear to be at first glance.
The second vote that I found to be particularly interesting aimed to improve the diversity of the party’s elected members, a motion that was obviously controversial but called on the Lib Dems to adopt all-women and all-disabled shortlists to select candidates. This showed that the party was willing to address its exclusively “male and pale” cohort of MPs in Westminster. There were standing ovations for speakers on both sides of this issue and it showed a real passion among party members for improving the demographics of elected members and making the party more representative wherever possible. Much like the cannabis motion this diversity motion was passed overwhelmingly.
The conference came to an end after a stirring speech from Tim Farron. Tim used his personal experiences as a narrative and called for a return to the party’s roots of local campaigns and community politics in order to rebuild the party from the grassroots. Overall, I enjoyed my first experience of Federal Conference, the debates were passionate but civil, the people were focused but friendly and I will try to attend as many future conferences as I can.
I’d like to conclude by offering five tips that may help first-timers to get the most out of conferences:
- Talk to as many people as you can – it is easy to stay in your local groups but you’ll find it is more fun and productive to mingle as much as you can
- Collect materials to take home (and to your local parties) – the better informed you are, the more satisfying you will find the debates and speeches
- Attend fringe meetings and join a Lib Dem group or two – there are lots of great Lib Dem groups, have a look for one that represents your strongest interests
- Download and use the conference app – it takes the stress out of organising your time at conference
- Join Twitter – there is an ever-growing community of Lib Dem tweeters and a real peak of activity during conferences (I met someone new by private messaging them through Twitter)