If I didn’t have enough already, Tim Farron gave me another reason for supporting him for party leader today, with his proposal that the Liberal Democrats should introduce a regular ‘festival of ideas’:
The festival will take place over a day and will be open, inclusive and egalitarian. It will consistent of a series of, say, twenty simultaneous sessions, each lasting no more than an hour, maybe in excess of hundred different sessions throughout the day.
And here’s the trick: the topics and format of the sessions will be set not centrally by the party or its leaders but by the participants themselves.
The Liberal Democrat Festival of Ideas will be open to all to attend. And once registered, any paid up member of the party will be free to propose a session in fifty words of less. It might take the form of a lecture, a panel debate or a facilitated discussion.
It will then be up to the participants which sessions they wish to attend, drawn by the topic, the speakers or the organiser. Some sessions will no doubt attract hundreds, others perhaps not more than half a dozen, but that’s not the point: everyone will have the opportunity to contribute on an equal basis, from the party leader to the newest member.
In effect, Tim’s proposing a Liberal Democrat Unconference, and unconferences are something I’ve been interested in since attending one in 2013. This proposal gets to the heart of something I’ve been thinking about and writing about for a while – we shouldn’t be content to just look at tweaking the way the party works based on structures created to smooth over post-merger squabbles, we should be pretty much starting again from scratch and building structures that suit a political movement in 2015. It’s why I think the whole ‘one member, one vote’ debate remains a huge distraction as it still limits involvement to those with the time, money and ability to actually get to Conference, and still keeps a very formalised policy-making process in place.
A ‘festival of ideas’, conducted in the way Tim proposes, would be something different, and a much more interesting way of getting members involved in talking about ideas and policies, as well as showing that we’re serious about being a party run by our members and open to contributions from everyone. The current political party conference model is looking very stale across all parties, and we shouldn’t be afraid to try some radical alternatives to it. Indeed, I’d go further than Tim’s proposal and suggest that the party ought to be a holding a series of regular festivals of ideas all around the country, and also providing support and training for regional and local parties to hold their own. Running a local unconference open to all with the aim of coming up with ideas to improve your area, town, county or whatever would be a great way of reinvigorating our commitment to community politics and finding new ways to involve people in improving their communities.
A festival of ideas shouldn’t be just a one-off event – and I suspect Tim doesn’t expect it to be – but something we can make a fundamental part of the way the party works: fully involving people at all leels in developing their ideas for the future. It’s not just about saying people have the power to determine policy – it’s enabling them to use that power.