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Greening Liberal Democrat Conferences

January 13, 2020 10:00 PM
By Keith Melton

Greening the Liberal Democrat Conference(s)

The observant amongst you will perhaps recall that, although I did not quite manage to make it onto the Federal Conference Committee in the recent elections, I was actually "Last Man Standing" in the single transferable vote as the counts progressed! Last one dropped!

I am happy to report that the FCC have reached out to me (prompted, kindly, by Duncan Brack, I gather) because they have decided to set up a sub-group to look at the issues that need to be addressed to make the Federal Conferences more environmentally responsible. The sub-group is chaired by the FCC Vice Chair Cara Williams and in a recent email exchange we have agreed that I should write a short piece for the GLD website inviting ideas from GLD members about changes that should be considered to progress the greening process.

Let me start the debate by indicating the thoughts I have already sent to the subgroup. Perhaps some of these can be activated by the time we reach York, but some of them will require a longer lead-in time. Those of you who have been to the GLD conferences over the last couple of years will know that we have already made progress for GLD (but it should be added that our conferences have only been one-day affairs, so have been a little easier to tackle, perhaps). Secondly, I should say this is an initiative of the FCC, so please approach the issue positively rather than in "complaining" mode. The door is already ajar, we just have to push at it rather than take an axe to the hinges!

The email to FCC Vice Chair

OK, so my original email to Cara following the invitation contained the following…

"My professional life before retirement involved a goodly number of conferences run at various levels including international academic conferences. More recently, I have organised the last two Green Liberal Democrat Annual conferences which have been based at Nottingham University - they have been particularly helpful in making our conferences environmentally low impact.

With the GLD conferences - since they were just one-day conferences, with much smaller numbers than the LD spring and autumn conferences - we were able to insist on pretty stringent conditions on catering and so on. But it turns out that our specifications actually caused the catering department to change their practices for all the conferences and events they service! Change can be infectious.

We specified "no single use plastic", so at the breaks and lunchtimes there were no tables laden with individual plastic bottles of water, which is one of the things that irritates me so much at LD conferences. The generation of plastic waste at a LD conference must be well into several tons and there seems to be very little, if any, arrangement for plastic recycling. The waste of raw material, extracted from the ground as well as the embedded energy cost is unjustifiable in a political meeting of any kind, let alone the central political meetings of an environmentally conscious party.

When I have raised this question before, the typical answer is that the "contractor" (loosely defined) has either been unwilling to consider this issue or, perhaps, that there would be a huge cost of change if we insisted on such conditions. My view is the old Liberal Ecology Group view (and one which I always thought was fundamental to Lib Dem party policy since 1988) and that is that "the polluter must pay". On this issue, there is no question but that WE are the polluters and must take responsibility for our pollution, so there can be no excuse. One way or another, this level of pollution MUST stop, if only to avoid accusations of hypocrisy.

This aspect must also be followed through with all the hotels where we expect there to be fringe meetings held. I know this to be possible, too, by the way, as we arranged a whole day of fringe meetings in Brighton at the Grand Hotel in September 2018 and, at no extra cost we were able to specify no single use plastic. Unfortunately, when we booked the fringe meetings in Bournemouth last autumn, the question was not addressed (so even the Green Lib Dems drop the ball occasionally!)

Another requirement we made in Nottingham was that the catering should be vegetarian (in 2018) and we went further in 2019 to insist on a vegan day - even meat eaters (amongst which I count myself) can survive for one or more days on a non-meat regime. All delegates were complimentary about the Nottingham catering and we did not have any complaints about the vegan food. The only small complaint was that we had not insisted on non-dairy milk for the teas and coffee breaks (so, in fact, we were not 100% vegan. This is something I need to address for this year`s GLD conference!)

Low Impact Options

I can see that this may be more difficult an issue to address for a three or five day conference, but it should not be too difficult to insist on a much better balance by reducing the dependence upon meat meals or snacks offered in the main conference venue. As for outside catering venues available for delegates to meet and talk I would have thought we could press the Local Council to make more information available - not least on the basis that their tourist services should have such information to hand for all visitors, alongside a good knowledge of special dietary availability, gluten free and so on.

You have already made mention of probably the biggest environmental impact of our conferences and that is the travel to and from the conference venues. There are strong arguments in favour of actual real-life meetings, but we do also need to be aware of the environmental costs. You already referred to car-sharing and a much-improved availability for people to effect car-sharing options with nearby members, as well as discounted rates for rail and bus travel where that may be arranged. This will all contribute to minimising such costs.

We should also look at virtual conferencing which would help with activist versus democratic arguments as well. We tried streaming the GLD conferences but on each occasion we faced some technological difficulties. Hopefully we can get it right this year, so that members who cannot get to the conference can still benefit by being there virtually. Technology can be brilliant, but it can also be a pain. It is, however, something we should be pursuing actively for environmental reasons.

My final thought for today (I am in Brazil at the moment, so it was still Monday here) is that we should make it easy for conference delegates to offset the environmental footprints they create by being at conference. Perhaps this is something the Green Liberal Democrats can help with on a more formal basis and I would be happy to have further discussions with my GLD colleagues on this. It is also possible we can help on the issue of looking at local restaurant offerings vis-a-vis vegan and vegetarian options. I know there may be some local GLD members who may be able to do some research along these lines - for a small fee! Or an odd lunch out!"

In her reply to my email, Cara, indicated there is a good App for car-sharing arrangements which should be widely advertised through the Conference process, called, appropriately enough, Liftshare, at www.liftshare.com.

Send me YOUR ideas

If YOU have any ideas that could improve the greening of our conferences, please send them to me at keith.melton@greenlibdems.org.uk and I will pass them on to the sub-group.

Keith Melton

Vice Chair (Campaigns)

Green Liberal Democrats