As it is autumn, it is party conference season. We Liberal Democrats had our conference last week, this week it was Labour’s turn and the Conservative conference will follow.
So why have party conferences at all and what happens at them? As a Liberal Democrat I know they are a key part of how our party operates, on both a political and social level.
There is more to a conference than the few hours you might see on the television. Here is a quick overview of what happens at Lib Dem party conference:
- There is, of course, discussion and debate on policy, both in meetings and the main auditorium. This means, unlike the other main parties, Lib Dem members still set party policy. Crucially, the leadership can be defeated even now – as happened just last week on the issue of secret courts.
- There are keynote speeches by senior parliamentarians, which for the Liberal Democrats now includes Cabinet Ministers such as Danny Alexander, as well as other leading members like Sharon Bowles MEP. Traditionally, our conference always ends with the Leader’s speech, sending party members back home on a high note.
- Party members also get the opportunity to put questions to senior party members from different parliaments in special Q&A sessions.
- There is also the chance to meet charity and commercial exhibitors, as well as party organisations, at an ever impressive exhibition. The best always have some exciting goodies or games to play!
- Some of these organisations, as well as a number of others, also hold fringe meetings. These are a chance to debate an issue or sessions on training and advice. While some are exclusively for party members, others are open for anyone to attend. This conference, I had the privilege of speaking at a number of fringe meetings. These covered topics as varied as internships, regional transport policy, the EU and body image/eating disorders. I also had time to attend fringe meetings on youth employment and training, NHS reform, the Scouting movement, and manufacturing.
- Conference is also an ideal opportunity for organisations to meet with elected LibDems to raise concerns or discuss ideas. I found myself on both sides of this exercise. As an example, I met with representatives of several trade and professional associations concerned with specific EU legislation as well as a regional utility company. My turn to put the points to an elected official came when I met with Lib Dem transport minister, Norman Baker, to discuss rail issues in the Yorkshire and Humber region, pushing the case for more investment in the region’s transport infrastructure.
- One of the many unique parts of Lib Dem conference is the Glee Club, a tradition going back many years. This is an old fashioned sing along on the last night of conference. Here we see many Lib Dems, some of whom may have had a few (or more!) drinks at the bar, singing specially written lyrics to well known tunes. A classic is one such song about Bermondsey MP Simon Hughes, which describes "Simon Hughes and his black and white cab" sung to the tune of Postman Pat. The regions also get an outing. I joined fellow Yorkshire Lib Dems on the Glee Club stage singing "Ilkley Moor bar t'hat". There is also always at least one refrain of the old Liberal anthem "The Land". The current Glee Club pianist is Birmingham MP John Hemming, which he explained during a transport fringe, is why he has to drive to conference, as he can't get his piano on the train!
- Not least of all, in fact a big attraction for many conference attendees, is the chance to meet up and socialise with old friends from around the country. For many, conference is the only chance they meet, but the friendships are no less strong for it. For me, as I became an MEP since the last conference, a lot of LibDem friends and colleagues at conference naturally wanted to speak to me to ask how I was settling in to my new job. The fact I got to do this in bar made it no less enjoyable!
So conference is made of many parts. All have their highlights. I certainly enjoy it and I am sure it has something for everyone too.