Speaking at conference can seem like a daunting process at first, but it’s really easy – and it’s your chance to make your mark on the party and party policy.
What’s more, some debates are very much decided by what the speakers say.
Here’s what you need to know before speaking at conference:
When you’re ready, you can also submit a speaker’s card online here: https://www.libdems.org.uk/speakers-card
How debates work
There are several different kinds of debates that can happen at conference, but for the purposes of this post there is not much difference between a policy motion and a business motion and a constitutional amendment.
What you need to do before the debate
Read the motion. You probably want to do this before even arriving at conference, really.
If there is to be a debate on a topic you are interested in, read the text of the motion and decide whether or not you agree with it as it is written. It’s important to do this, because apart from anything else most speakers will refer to line numbers in the motion and if you haven’t read it you might not know what they are talking about.
Decide whether or not you want to speak. If you do want to speak, fill in a card as early as you possibly can (more on that later!).
Most debate chairs will plan the debate in advance, usually by about an hour, and cards put in during the debate are much less likely to be called because the plan has already been planned.
Cards must be handed to the Speakers’ Table, which is normally at the front of the auditorium and manned by Claire and/or Jennie.
Plan what you are going to say. This need not be a full written speech, in fact I’d recommend not, because reading from a bit of paper is never as persuasive as looking at the audience, but do at least scrawl down some bullet point notes.
What you need to do during the debate
Have your agenda and your speech notes (if applicable) with you. Open your agenda (or the app) to the page where the motion is: this makes it much easier to follow the debate.
Arrive on time and settle quickly. The debate you are interested in will probably follow another item. Come in quietly and find a seat, don’t mess up the previous item for other people.
Listen to the speeches. People will often be making very persuasive points, or be informing you of an angle you hadn’t thought of. I have had my mind changed by speeches at conference, and I’m sure you will too. If it’s a really good speech, there’s an almost physical change in the air.
Pay attention to the chair as well as the speakers. They will tell you how the debate will run, when it is time to vote, and the names of the speakers, as well as any other pertinent information.
If you’ve put in a speaker’s card, listen for your name. If you are called to stand by to speak, go down to the front, sit in the stand-by speaker’s seat, and be ready to go up to the lectern.
This is so that there is the minimum gap between speeches and as many people as possible get to speak. A steward may ask who you are: this is just to check that you are the next speaker standing by and not just a rando clogging up the hall. If you are a rando clogging up the hall you’ll be asked to go sit somewhere else.
If you are called to stand by to make an intervention, go stand near the intervention mike and follow the Steward’s instructions.
The normal process
The chair will usually announce what form the vote will take. Listen carefully in the case of a debate where amendments have been submitted so you know what you are voting on in each case.
You must be seated to vote. Hold your card up with the word “voting” facing the chair so that they can see at a glance you are eligible to vote. Usually it is obvious whether or not a vote has been won or lost.
For a counted vote
Sometimes a vote is not obviously one way or the other, at which point either the chair will decide to count, or someone on the floor will demand a count.
In a counted vote you are required to keep your hand up for quite a long time. If you have accessibility problems with this, you can ask a person sitting near you to hold up your card for counting.
The stewards will count the vote and report back to the chair.
What to do after the debate
If you’re leaving, leave quietly. It’s just courtesy.
If you put in a card and didn’t get called, feel free to ask the chair of debate why, and perhaps what you could do better next time, when you run into them; but don’t say “why did you call X, they were rubbish?” because we can only go by what people put on their cards, and if their cards don’t look rubbish, we can’t know their speech is going to be.
Go celebrate/commiserate. Depending on whether the outcome was what you wanted it to be, of course.
Prepare for the next debate. Once you’ve got one speech under your belt, you’re just going to want to do more, trust me…
As always, if you need any help find a steward or a member of FCC and we will be pleased to assist.
How to complete a speaker’s card
Getting to speak at conference starts with filling out a speaker’s card – and to help you do that, here’s a guide, including some examples of bad cards!
You can fill out a card online, here: https://www.libdems.org.uk/speakers-card
Or on paper at conference.
Please note: all characters portrayed on these speakers cards are entirely fictional and any resemblance to persons living or dead is… well, look, we tried to avoid it, OK? We didn’t want anyone to feel picked on, so we’ve given people silly names and silly debates to speak in, and things are exaggerated for comic effect; the points I am making are reasonably serious, though.
Bad Card 1: Anne Empee, MP
This card, while slightly exaggerated, is almost identical to one which I have seen from an actual parliamentarian (name redacted to protect the guilty). There are several issues with it:
She’s ticked that she is both for and against the motion.
She’s not filled in either of the boxes on the back properly.
Being an MP, or any other important person, does not give you more right to be called in a debate
The “what are you going to say?” bit has that much room in it for a reason: we can’t balance the debate if we don’t know what you are going to say.
This is the number one reason why cards do not get selected: if we can’t tell even whether you are for or against the motion, how can we call you?
It has both chocolate and coffee stains on it, which while it won’t absolutely and definitely rule out your card, is certainly a bit grim. It’s also a bit of a problem to those of us with allergies: certainly you want to avoid smearing nutty food residue on your card, because that could potentially be fatal.
Anne’s card will therefore be going into the “definitely not” pile unless the debate is seriously undersubscribed. It’s easy to avoid Anne’s mistakes, though:
Follow the ticky box instructions! If you do accidentally tick too many boxes, put the card in the recycling and do another one.
Don’t assume that because you are a parliamentarian (or chair of something, or on a federal committee) you are important enough to not fill the card in properly: the debate chair’s number one rule is to balance the debate.
If you don’t say what you plan to say we can’t do that, and you won’t be called. The only time it is acceptable to not fully fill these parts in is if you are either proposing or summating the motion or an amendment.
In those cases it’s entirely proper (and indeed, helpful) to put “proposing/summating the motion/amendment”. At all other times you need to fill these parts in persuasively, to persuade us to pick your card. If you only take one thing away from this blog post, let it be that.
Do try not to smear food all over your card, it’s just nasty.
Bad Card 2: Baron Poleyns
Baron P doesn’t have any methods of contact listed; while this doesn’t guarantee you won’t get called, it does count against you, and if it’s a toss-up between you and somebody else then the other person will be picked.
The entire back of his card is one huge wall of text: the sentence continues from the top section to the bottom section without breaking stride and everything. This makes it difficult to read (even though his handwriting is fairly legible).
He does, however, give a lot of concrete examples of where his expertise lies, so that’s something.
He has one big thing in common with Anne: he thinks he’s incredibly important and well-known; he therefore hasn’t ticked any of the diversity information because he assumes that we know it already. This causes problems when we are checking that we have not shown bias in speaker selection
“I realise that this is a lot to fit into a 3 minute speech but I am prepared to go over” – if you do, you’ll get the microphone turned off, sorry. We don’t often get a speaker outright stating that they plan to go over time in a debate, but there are a lot of speakers who are known for doing so. if you’re one of these, it does get noticed.
Bad card 3: Ralph Haemotode
Ralph has written in the “do not write in this section” section. Compounding this error by writing an apology in there as well doesn’t really help.
Ralph is in favour of some lines of the motion, but he doesn’t say which ones. Referring to the text on the back of his card does not help us to glean which lines he is talking about.
Ralph thinks that white men are underrepresented in politics.
Ralph is very unclear as to whether or not he has spoken before at a federal conference
The back of Ralph’s card practically screams “do not call me in this debate, or any debate, ever”.
Bad card 4: Jessica Yoghurt-Knitter
Jessica has not ticked whether she is for or against the motion; if this happens we refer to the back of the card to see if we can work it out from the text. We can’t work it out from Jessica’s text. Jessica is therefore almost certain to not get called unless we are desperate for speakers.
While Vegans are certainly a minority of the population, they are not what is usually meant when referring to underrepresented groups.
People write all sorts of things in here, and while I wouldn’t want to discourage that, it’s not going to add to your likelihood of being called if you write “goth” or “cheesemonger” or other non-protected characteristics.
I saw a card at the most recent conference which had “pensioner” in this slot, which is a bit more borderline than Vegan – while age is a protected characteristic, I don’t think you could argue that pensioners are underrepresented in the lib dems, or indeed, in politics as a whole.
Bad card 5: Jeff Opentoed-Sandals
Jeff’s main problem is that his card is almost completely illegible. He could be the world’s biggest expert on whatever the motion is about, but we can’t tell because we can’t read his handwriting.
If this is you, consider block capitals, or perhaps getting someone else to fill your card in for you – I have happily filled in cards for people for various reasons before (not just illegibility, but arthritic hands, unable to see the card clearly, etc) and will doubtless do so again in the future.
I’m not entirely sure that even if his writing were legible, Jeff would have demonstrated his expertise or fully outlined what he plans to say, simply because there are not enough illegible scribbles there for that to have happened.
One good thing that Jeff has done, however, is to indicate that he is for the motion as a whole but against amendment one with arrows. This is something that it’s almost impossible to accommodate in card design without taking up way too much room, and Jeff’s way around it is probably the best one.
Bad card 6: Tarquin McNugget, Chieftain of the Clan McNugget
Tarquin has actually done a reasonable job of the front of his card, aside from one thing: somebody is going to have to go and find him (or phone him) and ask if he is a wheelchair user or not, because what he has written in there is not clear at all.
The reason we ask this is so that we can call wheelchair users earlier than other people so that they have more time to get up on the stage; with some stage sets this involves being put on a lift, and others there’s a slope, but either way if you can’t just jog up the steps we need to know so that we can give you more time to approach.
This does not apply now the new speakers’ card is in use, which says “I will need step-free/wheelchair access to the stage” so that you can not only tick the ticky box, but delete as applicable if you wish.
Tarquin appears to be confessing to murdering his parent(s) or other family member(s) on the back of his card.
This would certainly cause raised eyebrows, even in the lib dems. Probably disciplinary action, and maybe even calling the police. It’s probably not wise to put in writing that you have committed a criminal offence.
Or indeed, to say so from the stage. I’ve not ever heard anyone confess to murder, but some of the drugs debates have had people come close to confessing a criminal offence live on television to the three or four people watching BBC Parliament.
In all seriousness, though, even if this didn’t involve a criminal offence, putting on the back of your card that you can’t say what you want to say until the motion is passed? Why have you even put a card in? The debate is necessarily before the motion is passed!
Bad card 7: Simon Adtwat
The front of Simon’s card is actually pretty good; he’s ticked all the right boxes and indicated properly which things he is for and against. It’s the back that’s the problem.
Simon has not fully demonstrated expertise in the field of nuclear weapons
Simon is trying to insert an amendment into the motion via a speaker’s card. You can’t do this. The procedure for submitting amendments is clearly laid out in the party constitution, and this doesn’t even come close.
Acceptable Card: Jennie Rigg
I know my handwriting can sometimes be a bit difficult, so I have written in block capitals for legibility.
I have filled in both my own name and the name of the motion I wish to speak to.
I have ticked all the relevant boxes and been specific about my diversity characteristics.
I have used bullet points in both of the back sections for clarity (mad props to those who do this and use highlighters and basically lay out the entire structure of their speech in a concise way – those cards are LOVELY).
I have specified actual relevant areas of expertise in the top section on the back of the card, and properly summarised what I plan to say in the “what do you plan to say in the debate?” section.
I haven’t written in the “do not write in this section” section, or smeared the card with anything off putting.
And that’s it!
You can get started on submitting your card online now: https://www.libdems.org.uk/speakers-card