When we took the decision to cancel Spring Conference earlier this year and provide an alternative online event for members, it didn’t occur to us for one moment that come October, life would not be back to normal and we would not be busy printing timetables, stuffing folders, and getting ready to welcome 1,000 plus members to a shiny new venue in Birmingham.
But yet here we are gearing up for our first fully online conference ever, with a mixture of excitement (so many new possibilities!) and anxiety (how will it all work? We haven’t done this before! Help!).
There is, I must confess, an element of relief in being freed from the more problematic elements of a physical conference such as the catering (nightmare contract negotiations), and the stage set (so expensive, so unsustainable), the physical exhaustion (load the van, unload the van, travel in the van, skip sleep, skip meals). But also huge sadness at the things that we will be missing out on. For activists and staff alike, conference provides a much valued opportunity for networking and socialising, and you simply can’t replicate that online. The camaraderie and bonding will be sorely, sorely missed by many.
Constitutionally, the only thing we actually have to do at conference is hold workshops and plenaries where members can vote on the Agenda, and committee elections.This was therefore our starting point, but it soon became clear members were keen to replicate other conference sessions, too, and so perhaps somewhat surprisingly we have ended up with a timetable not dissimilar to an ‘In Real Life’ event: fringes and panels, speeches and hustings, even evening socials.
So far, so easy. But the real challenge has been in working out how to actually offer all this online. So many of the options we looked at didn’t fit with the high standards we have for our internal democracy, so for example one platform (which the LibDems are using) was rejected as the process of ‘giving someone the floor’ was too clunky, and wouldn’t have worked for our debates. Another voting platform was discounted as it couldn’t deal with proxies, and we need to offer that in order to maximise enfranchisement of our membership.
And then there are the slightly surreal challenges of corona era leadership speeches. Where to film them? Should they be live? Will journalists and broadcasters still want to come? Can we even do this with the ‘Rule of Six’? How to create an atmosphere when you are speaking to an empty auditorium? I wasn’t sure whether it was reassuring or not when our enquiry to the BBC as to how they planned to live broadcast the Leaders’ speeches this time was ‘we don’t know. What do you suggest?’. It is clearly a great big learning curve for all organisations, big and small.
Of course, the most exciting thing about this brave new online world is that it opens up conference to members who wouldn’t have been able to join us in Birmingham due to caring responsibilities, disabilities, financial constraints, or other barriers. This feels like a huge gain for party democracy and decision-making, and we can’t wait to see how it all works out when we go live on 2 October.