This weekend is vastly different from the one I was planning nine months ago. The annual pilgrimage to the Liberal Democrat Conference has been much shorter than the usual trek for me down to the south coast to the resorts of Brighton or Bournemouth.
After the planned Spring Conference in York was cancelled at the last minute in March just a few days before the country went into lockdown, I turned my focus to looking forward to the annual big seaside gathering which this year was to be held in Brighton.
With the effects of the pandemic continuing, it was announced that the Autumn Conference was also off. The Party said that alternatives were being looked at to allow a sort of conference to be held.
My colleagues within the Party managed to find the solution – going Virtual. This has allowed the Party to keep the most important part of a Liberal Democrat Conference up and running – making policy. The debates and voting can now be all done from our home offices, at kitchen tables or, if you prefer, still in bed! There is a kind of nosiness about seeing everyone in their own homes and seeing what speakers have on their bookshelves behind them (a bit like we have been doing with celebrities during interviews on the TV over the last six months!)
There is also a jam-packed training programme, which is especially great as we have so many new conference attendees this year which the conference being so accessible this year.
Despite being at home, the conference timings have still meant grabbing food at odd times, or late at night after the conference programme is over, although the benefit is the food is more healthy and cheaper (the same with the coffee prices!)
The one thing the virtual conference cannot replicate is the togetherness. I am missing seeing those friends who you only see at conference time and the late-night discussions on motions being discussed the next day. The buzz that you also normally get from so many like-minded people in one place is also missing. I have not yet tried the networking facility on the platform being used which has been likened to ‘speed-dating’ – where you get to talk to a fellow networking member at conference randomly for a short time.
However, saying that, whether we must have a full virtual conference again in Spring is unknown, but it is so important that we have a sense of normality even if there is a modern twist on it.
I hope that when we can meet again at a conference venue, that an element of the virtual conference is continued, maybe a hybrid version like the House of Commons currently. This would allow those who are not able to access a traditional conference for whatever reason to attend, to vote on our policies and have a taste of the conference experience.
Conference to me has always been an important part of the year, and I have missed very few since my first conference back in Brighton in 2007. I look forward to the time when we can all be back together again as a big Lib Dem family, but until then, it is great to know that the usual Lib Dem quirks of conference with procedural motions and fringe events (minus the curly sandwiches and warm wine) continues – even if we are not together in person.