Thanks to one of the best measures in the Refounding Labour changes every CLP has been given a free pass for their delegate, and so several CLPs have had the financial barrier to attendance lifted. Therefore there will be more conference delegates attending than has been the case for some time. Given that I have been to conference for the last 11 years straight (my 12th conference in total) and have “failed” as often as I’ve “suceeded” I wanted to jot down a few quick thoughts on how to have a good conference and how to get something out of it for yourself and your CLP.
While I have been to conference several times, I have rarely been a delegate, and when I was, it wasn’t when the organisation I was delegating for were trying to pass a motion. So sadly, the world of compositing and proposing is a bit of a mystery to me, though I will try to bluff my way through it (which frankly, would be my advice to you too). But here are some things I can tell you and that I hope will stand you in good stead for leaving on the Thursday morning, bleary, knackered and hopefully happy that you’ve achieved what you set out to do.
1. Set yourself a personal and a CLP conference goal
Talk to your CLP about a realistic goal you can achieve for them. This can fall into any catagory from trying to strongarm a few NEC and Shadow Cabinet members to agree to a visit to your CLP fundraiser or taking part in the debate on a motion you support. make sure that you keep notes on your progess on this goal, as you have a duty to report back on it to your CLP.
This will be the only part of the conference that is specific to your CLP. They will be able to read about the Leader’s and other speeches in the press or at least online, but find out from them what they would realistically like you to bring back (Don’t let them talk you into agreeing an unrealistic goal like securing visits from the whole Shadow Cabinet (unless you’re the delegate from Corby!) or rewriting economic policy).
But also set yourself a personal goal.
Is there someone you’ve always wanted to meet? Conference is a great time for meeting politicians who are usually welcoming of the attention. You can dance the night away with several of them at one of the many receptions that happen every night (see point 3) or simply stop them for a photograph. Don’t be shy about approaching them, but do please be polite. If it’s clear someone is in the middle of a discussion with someone else, don’t simply butt in. Wait for an appropriate moment to introduce yourself. Basically, if you act like a human being who isn’t a dick and remember that the people you want to meet are human beings too, you’ll be fine.
Or is there a point you particularly want to hear a Shadow Cabinet member’s views on or an argument you particularly want to make to them? You might find going to a fringe meeting at which they are speaking the best way to do this. The well thumbed fringe guide – or these days the excellent fringe app – can be an extremely useful tool of the conference goer’s trade.
2. Speaking at Conference
If you do want to speak in a debate there are defintitely good and bad ways of going about this. Trust me, you will see extreme examples of both over the week. To be picked you will need to catch the eye of the Chair. Wear something distinctive that they can single you out with (i.e. the lady in the orange and blue striped suit, the gentleman in the yellow hat waving his papers). Carry something you can wave.
If you do get to speak on the platform, be prepared for nerves. I’m a pretty experience public speaker, and I got my first chance to speak from the platform last year. Learn from my lessons (for a start tie your bloody hair back!) The lights are incredibly bright, and the countdown timer incredibly daunting. Speak slowly and clearly and make your point briefly. Do not shout. Do not bang the rostrum. You may think it makes you look like Nye Bevan, but for those watching it makes it a literally painful experience.
If you are speaking at a fringe event, it’s considerably less daunting. For a start there’s no countdown timer. Please don’t see this as a licence to go on for 5 minutes or worse more! Keep it pithy and precise and respect the rights of other delegates to be heard too. Any time you take extending your point into a speech is time they don’t get to speak themselves.
But don’t let me put you off speaking. A well planned and pithy injection from the floor is frequently the best and most important part of the debate. This is your conference and you should have a voice at it. If you do want to develop your argument further afterwards, it is extremely common practice to approach the speakers after the debate to elaborate. That allows you to make your point foruter if you don’t feel it was properly interpreted in the responses, while also respecting the right of others to be heard. Once again, it kind of boils down to “don’t be a dick”.
3. Surviving Conference on a budget
Done wrong, conference can be a dreadfully expensive affair. But if you accept a simple truth, then conference in a fixed budget is perfectly possible. That truth is:
Do not expect to eat well at conference, but do expect to eat (and drink) for free up to a point.
Pretty much every event on the fringe that is not a fundraiser (i will shortly be publishing detail of a fundraiser for LabourList i am helping to organise) will provide free food. Most evening events will also provide wine and sometimes beer. it will not be healthy food, it will not be fine wine. But it will be free. Until the midnight scrum at the conference hotel bar, you should not have to pay to eat and drink all day.
4. Get some sleep
This sounds obvious, but when you get there, and you’re in the bar talking to a fascinating delegate, a leading politician and the woman who wrote that book you loved, you’ll be amazed how easily it can get to 4am. Despite the fact that you’re committed to attend a breakfast meeting at 7.30! I once had a friend who boasted he could do the whole of conference on 6 hours sleep. Not 6 hours a night, 6 hours total. He doesn’t go to conference any more. In fact, he looks at you with a sort of haunted horror when you mention the mere idea to him. Don’t burn out. Pace yourself and spread your enjoyment.
5. enjoy yourself
Conference is fun. This is a grand social occasion! That’s why they call it Socialism*. A week away from work discussing your favourite topic with like minded folk. Dancing, drinking and debating (sometimes not even in that order!) and networking to with a inch of your life, allow yourself to enjoy it. Yes politics is a serious business, but it does not have to be a po-faced one.
Enjoy your conference. I intend to enjoy mine. And I look forward to seeing you there!
* May not actually be why they call it Socialism.