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Interview with the new Chair of Federal Conference Committee – Geoff Payne

June 14, 2018 11:42 AM
By Tahir Maher in Liberal Democrat Voice

Congratulations on being elected the new FCC Chair Chair speaking at Conference

Thank you! It is a really exciting job to have; one of the very best in the party.

What changes do you think that Andrew Wiseman brought to the FCC as Chair?

Andrew was a great chair. He steered us through the immediate pre-coalition period, though the years we were in government and then the period of re-building afterwards. He oversaw increases in attendance, vast increases in commercial revenue from 2010 and more recently the attendance of huge numbers of new members at conference. One of the most significant changes that he successfully navigated us through was the abolition of conference representatives and the move to one member, one vote. He will be a very hard act to follow.

What attracted you to put yourself forward to be Chair of FCC as compared to another representative body of the LD?

The simple answer is that I love party conference. We are unique in having a conference that actually makes the policy of the party.

Any member, from a person who joined just a few weeks ago, to the Leader can submit a motion to the conference and make a case for it being passed. All votes are equal. Success depends on the power of argument and the strength of the idea. The same goes for individual motions on particular issues, wide-ranging policy papers and indeed election manifestos.

The FCC plays an incredibly important role in refereeing conference, ensuring debates are fair and selecting an agenda that is interesting, varied and which contains things that members actually want to talk about.

We have a great committee comprised of members elected from across the party. It is a real privilege to be its chair

Obvious question - although it can be considered a little harsh - what do you bring to FCC as Chair;

I hope I bring experience of how the conference works - having attended pretty much solidly since 2001 and having been Vice-Chair of the FCC since 2010. I have been a regular at the Access Forum and I have also chaired some of the more difficult debates in recent times (Israel/Palestine, All Women Shortlists, the new disciplinary processes - including one where a reference back was carried on a counted vote by just one solitary vote…).

I also understand how different parts of the Party work having joined in 1994 and campaigned in many seats since then. I was chair of Liberal Youth, and I have been a Parliamentary candidate, Parliamentary Researcher, member of English Council Executive and long-standing member of Federal Policy Committee.

What is your vision for FCC:-

a) Spring Conference (as it is not making too much money)

b) Autumn Conference

You are right to identify that there are challenges around Spring Conference. I have no plans to spearhead an FCC campaign to abolish it though. I think that it is very important that party members have the opportunity to debate policy and hold party officers and committees to account and once a year is not enough for that. It is also no secret however that we must make every penny of party money count. In recent years, the subsidy provided to Spring Conference by Autumn Conference has reduced such that excluding staff and office costs, it is has been in the black of late. However, there is more to be done and it is more important than ever that we go the extra mile to attract commercial exhibitors, sponsors and every party member we can to attend.

Autumn Conference is our flagship event and offers our shop window to the world; showing people not only what our policies are but how we go about deciding them. My vision for Autumn Conference is to ensure that we have radical, interesting and engaging agendas that people want to talk about and that we make it a really rewarding experience for members.

In our feedback, the overwhelming majority of attendees (over 95% usually) say that conference makes them proud to be a Liberal Democrat and more enthused to campaign for the party. I want to continue achieving feedback like that! Joking aside, it does demonstrate that conference is an investment in party members just as much as it is an investment in the image we project to the outside world.

Repeatedly I hear from members that they want more policy motions to be discussed at the conference and to hear directly from more of the senior figures in the party

Given that we only have a finite amount of agenda time, there can be a tension between those two things! I agree that those are the priorities of many of our members though. People do enjoy speeches from spokespeople but they also attend to debate policy. I am committed to wringing as many minutes as we can from the agenda. That said, there are other important aspects of a conference such as the fringe and training. The challenge we have is to balance the competing demands of them all

What will you do to encourage more AO's and SAO's to be at the party conferences especially as a lot of them are tight for funds

I completely understand the pressure on funds having chaired an SAO. When I was Vice-Chair of FCC, I developed an agreement with many party bodies to enable more of them to take advantage of the concessionary party body rate for the exhibition and fringe. We are going to continue that and are always interesting in hearing ideas about how we can make the experience better for them. Many of them hold their Annual General Meetings at the conference and I really want to encourage that. SAOs and AOs are part of the lifeblood of the party and they belong at the conference.

Do you have any plans to assist new members or members who have not attend a conference to attend?

This is a real priority for us.

For this Autumn, we wish to encourage as many members as possible to attend - so that all members have the opportunity to participate in our democratic process and vote on our policy motions, but also to strengthen our recovery in the months and years ahead. Therefore, if anyone reading this has any Lib Dem friends that have not previously attended Autumn Conference, please do encourage them to register and you will benefit from them attending. For every new attendee referred, receive 10% off of your registration fee (up to a maximum of 30%) refunded after the conference. This scheme obviously cannot be used in conjunction with any other concession rates. You can learn more about this initiative here: https://www.libdems.org.uk/refer_a_friend

First-time attendees always get a warm welcome. We offer special tours of the venue and a first-timers fringe meeting.

We have nearly 100k members why do you think we are unable to get even say 8000 members to attend a single conference

Getting more people to attend is our biggest challenge. Although, to be fair, our ratio of members to conference attendees is not dissimilar to other parties - but we are not complacent. It is right that the venues we book have a finite capacity. York is one of our most popular but it can be a bit of a squeeze for us. We do take having a hall large enough to accommodate everyone very seriously though even to the extent that we have commissioned overflow areas in the past - although as it happens, we have not had to use them. We even had contingency plans to allow us to count the overflow area in the event of a counted vote! When selecting venues, we try and ensure a proper geographical balance - that is why we have been to Glasgow, Liverpool, Brighton, Bournemouth, York and Southport in recent memory.

Is there any mileage in making the conference much cheaper so attendance goes up (hence the cheap attendance fees is balanced by higher attendance);

We have kept registration fees as low as we can and have frozen the claimant rate for some time. Many people find that the cost of the conference comes largely in the form of accommodation and time off work but of course, I accept that the fees can be an issue. We are always looking for ways to reduce the cost of attending and select venues with that in mind. For example, some of our venues have a better range of competitively priced accommodation than others.

Do we need to have more radical fringe meetings - i.e. Invite more thought provoking / radical guests to fringe meetings;

Yes! I would love to see more radical fringe meetings. Without wishing to be seen to cop out though, I should add that FCC is not directly responsible for running the fringe. We make the rooms available and promote the opportunities to book but we are dependent on party members and other bodies coming forward with radical ideas. I would like to see more fringe meetings focussed around controversial items on the agenda.

Do you feel the different number and variety of training offered at the conference are satisfactory, if not what more could we do?

Training is very popular but, again, it is in a similar category to the fringe in that it is not directly provided or overseen by FCC. I am aware though of concerns that not enough training can be accommodated at a conference. What is provided however does receive very good feedback and I would welcome ideas as to how it could be improved further.

What will you and the party do to increase our media exposure when a conference is on?

Media exposure depends to an extent on how eye-catching our agenda is. That is certainly something that we prioritise and can directly control. The more interesting conference is, the better our coverage will be.

It is no secret though that our political position and polling determine our media profile rather more than anything FCC can do and that is something that the whole party will have to work hard to address.

What is your view do you feel are the areas of possible change going forward and why?

We must continue building the party from the bottom up. We will do our part on FCC by making the conference as exciting and engaging for members as we can and by ensuring that we get the best coverage possible.

Part of building the sort of agenda we want is ensuring that we get a high quality of motions submitted. To achieve that, we offer a drafting advice service whereby members can submit draft motions and receive advice on the drafts. They all come to me and I distribute them to members of FCC: (https://www.libdems.org.uk/drafting_advice).

We need to ensure that diversity is at the forefront of everything we do. We must make sure that the people we call in debates and those who chair conference are representative and reflective of modern Britain.

Embracing technology is also a must. That means guaranteeing that conference is live streamed. Expect a pilot around electronically submitted Speakers' Cards in the future as well.

Do you have a clear understanding of what members think about Lib Dem conferences?

We have a pretty good idea. We look carefully at what people feedback to us online after a conference and we obviously talk to people at the conference itself. Party members generally do not hesitate in letting us know their views - and we really welcome that.

After every conference, we have a specific meeting where we go through the comments received from members in the online feedback, from the stewards and from party staff and spokespeople. We have just finished going through the review of Southport.

We have acted on many of the comments received. We pay particular attention to views about the venues, the balance between delate and non-debate items on the agenda and issues of access. At Autumn Conference, we hold the Access Forum where people can come along and talk to us directly. We are always interested in learning more though.

Do get in touch with us via the party website or connect to us via our Facebook page. Just search for 'Liberal Democrat Federal Conference'.

Do you have any other thoughts about your roles a Chair of FCC not covered or anything else you may want to add / revisit?

Nothing other than to say that registration is open for Autumn Conference (https://www.libdems.org.uk/autumn-conference) and to give one more plug for our 'refer a friend' scheme!

We are finalising arrangements with the two conference venues for next year and hope to announce them shortly. If anyone reading this is tempted to come to a conference but is worried about never having gone before then my message is to take the plunge! It is well worth it. There was a time that Vince Cable attended his first conference and Jo Swinson attended hers. We were all first-time attendees once! Come along. You will get a very warm welcome indeed

Thank you, Geoff and Good luck, in this very important role.

My pleasure. And thank you for the opportunity to answer your questions.

* Tahir Maher is a member of the LDV editorial team