The rolling saga that is security checks for people attending Liberal Democrat federal conference has generated a lot of heat, some light – and a fair degree of confusion. So this post is my attempt to untangle the main aspects of the story, which really fall into three sections: the principle of the checks, the way the checks have been communicated and the way the checks have in practice been carried out.
In theory, the principle of whether or not the Liberal Democrat conference organisers should have agreed to the police’s request for extra security checks on attendees for the autumn conference is a fairly clear one for people to chew over.
However, it has been muddled by communications that have at times been unclear or even completely absent. From checking with people involved in the last few days, it seems clear to me that the party’s Federal Conference Committee is retaining the final say over who does or does not come to party conference but it’s very easy to understand why many people have come away with a different impression given some of the ways the process has been described up to now. Even the emails sent out after people have been accredited are rather a missed opportunity, as I highlighted a few days ago (though to their credit the conference team are now looking at changing the wording of that email).
What also has not helped is the lack of communication about when people can expect to hear the outcome of their security checks.
The bald numbers don’t sound too bad. As of the Wednesday evening 4,773 had been through the process and accredited. 841 were being processed, with that number expected to fall to under 500 by the end of the weekend. [Update: for more recent figures see here.]
But until you get an email saying you are through or with a query, you have faced silence.
People who registered back in January and whose surnames are low in the alphabet are in the 841 and understandably silence breeds concern, nervousness and lack of confidence in the system. It also has a slightly nasty twist for access to conference, as broadly speaking the later you find out for sure if you can go to conference, the more expensive accommodation or travel is to book. For better off people either you risk it and book in advance or you take the hit of the higher costs. But if you struggle to meet the costs of conference, then you face a tough dilemma.
My guess is that if we’d all been told at what speed the process would work in advance, many people would have been far happier – but we shouldn’t forget the impact on the cost of conference for some people who struggle to afford it.
No-one blocked from attending conference so far
Then there is the question of who has not been approved. There’s been lots of chatter online about various people being rejected for conference. The answer from the Federal Conference Committee’s chair, Andrew Wiseman, when I asked him how many had been rejected however was very clear: “zero”. The point being that some people have been asked to clarify information or submit a different photo, but that this is different from being rejected. Being rejected means you can’t go to conference, end of story; being asked something like to provide a different photo means just that – do that, pass the checks and you can go to conference.
Around 60 people have had their photographs queried and a small number of these cases have attracted a lot of attention online. However, the request for a clear and shoulders photograph is nothing new. I’ve been to federal party conferences since spring 1990 and as a result have sitting on the shelf to my left 23 conferences of photo badges, complete with head and shoulders photos on them (and, ahem, varying hairstyles).
So the question for me at least is how many of the 60 or so photographs that have been rejected would have also fallen foul of the party’s previous rules, which have been in place without questioning for more than two decades?
Certainly some. Two examples I’ve been told of are one person who submitted a “head and shoulders” photograph that actually showed two people. It would not have met the party’s old rules. Another was a photo so tiny that it too would have failed the old rules.
There are also signs that not all the photo issues are of this nature. In particular, the conference team has introduced an extra manual check to see if photos can be sorted out (e.g. by cropping) before being rejected. That is a a good move, but suggests that if had been done from the start things would have gone a little better. Callum Leslie’s experience also suggests a fallible system.
(My previous request to people who have had their photos queried to supply copies of the photos so we can all see how reasonable or not the queries are still stands by the way. If you’re in that category please do get in touch and I’ll update this post with any other specific examples.)
Three opportunities to influence the future
So, in conclusion – it is easy to see how the operation and communication of the system could and should have been better.
If you have not yet heard about your own security check, that does not mean anything has gone wrong and you should hear soon. The official expectation from Andrew Wiseman is that “For those who had registered by last Monday and where there are no queries I would expect them to be accredited by next weekend”.
Some of the claims about people being rejected are misleading, both because they have not been blocked from coming to conference, but rather asked to change or add to their application, and also because in at least some cases the people involved submitted photos that would have always been rejected by the party in earlier years.
That still however leaves quite a lot to debate and decide on ahead of future conferences, especially given cases such as Lisa Harding’s (including a comment from Andrew Wiseman in the thread underneath) and the information that Zoe O’Connell secured via a freedom of information request (note how late in the day the police were leaving working out how their system would work). [Update: For more on some of these problems, see here.]
On which point there are three dates to bear in mind:
- 1pm Monday is the deadline for submitting written questions to the Federal Conference Committee report
- Saturday 17th, 14:40 is the Conference Committee report to conference
- Sunday 18th, 09:00 is the debate on a motion about conference accreditation