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Idris Francis

This article by Idris Francis (pictured) appeared in the August 2000 issue of Sovereignty.

My experience of attending various party conferences since 1997 may be of some assistance to those who have the time and determination to become involved in this way.

The vast majority of fringe meetings and conference hotels are open to the public. I have never been asked for identification, or subjected to security checks. The conferences proper are a different matter but, in any case, offer little opportunity for dissent.

Try to catch the chairman's eye in the last 10 minutes of platform speeches. Wear something distinctive to make it easy for him to pick you out and avoid confusion with others nearby.

Sit well towards the front, preferably well to the side so that when you stand up - which you must - you can face sideways and be seen and heard by audience and platform.

Speak loudly, clearly and as quickly as you can. Avoid pauses or hesitation, which not only reduce your impact but allow interjections, or worse, the chairman to cut you off.

You are not speaking to three people - but a roomful. There is no point in getting to your feet unless you can be heard. Without a mike, it is essential to project, and it helps to be well to the side and facing sideways.

Promise to be brief, if appropriate. This makes it less likely that the chairman will cut you off. If he tries, ask for 20/30 seconds to finish -- difficult for this to be refused. Have the punch line/question ready at all times to end on a flourish.

Humour -- only if you are good at it -- helps a great deal, but nothing risqué.

Always have a notepad, with a few items jotted down in advance, and added to during the speeches. Ten minutes from the end of speeches, list the points to use in sequence. Mark the more important ones so that you can concentrate on those if time is short. Have the punch line at the end, ready.

Do not be "polite" waiting to the end to put your hand up -- that only risks being left out. By all means be forceful, but not rude.

Any reasonable chairman or speaker will accept forceful disagreement, as long as it is well argued, to the point and without personal abuse.

On economic matters or things like Corpus Juris it is always very much more effective to say, "I have the evidence here in my hand and will show it to anyone who wishes to see it" than "I have the figures at home."

I prefer debates where at least some of the speakers and audience are from the opposition. Walking around the LibDem hotels and meetings as an infiltrator was quite fun. Which reminds me -- there are times when wearing badges such as the £ sign is helpful, and times when it is not. Some chairmen who do not wish to hear the anti-euro view expressed will quite deliberately refuse to call people they can identify in this way.

Many chairmen see it as their job to keep rigid control. They will announce in advance that the floor will be limited to asking questions. I often raise a "Point of Order" and say that I find it more democratic and more productive if we are given more freedom to give opinions. Not infrequently, the audience and/or speakers will agree, thus forcing the chairman's hand. If not, abide politely by the ruling - while stretching it as much as you dare.

Chairmen who say "We are a democratic Party, and so we welcome anyone from the floor to ask a question or give their opinions whether they agree or disagree" find that this goes down very well, and shows up the contrast with other parties.

It is always helpful to have someone give the opposite point of view -- to the extent that I sometimes wish that we had a stooge to do so! We should be able to answer any such view and win the point.

As a frequent infiltrator of enemy meetings, I very rarely find any aggro from the chairman or speakers, who are often pleased to see an otherwise dull one-sided meeting livened up.

If you have a particular point to make, eg. Corpus Juris, and the chairman is likely to be sympathetic, tell him before the meeting and ask for a couple of minutes to cover it.

Be as brief and quick as you possibly can. If you sense you are losing the audience, or especially if they catcall, sit down with good grace. Overstaying your welcome is one of the worst sins.

Do not make the mistake of thinking that heckling is rude or un-British. Competently done, and appropriate to the particular audience, subject and speakers, it can add a great deal to any meeting, and is part of our tradition. Many who disagree vehemently with a heckler's views nevertheless appreciate and enjoy a robust and spirited debate rather than being listened to in silence, and have been known to confirm this view in public and in writing. These seem to be the rules:

Never become personal - never insult except obliquely in an amusing way that raises laughter not dislike. For example, "Mr Howarth, I have listened most carefully to your speech, and on balance I would prefer to believe Bill Clinton" (topical at the time).

No swear words - even when provoked beyond endurance.

Do not heckle trivial points - wait for the first absurd or outrageous statement. Someone has to break the ice -- after the first heckle, unless the chairman is a martinet, others will join in.

Speed is all - be on the ball, 6 words later is too late. A good heckle just too late is better stored away and kept for the same subject, during questions or at another time.

Be prepared - a list of likely errors by that speaker on that subject can often bring to mind suitable interventions, just waiting for the right moment. Europhiles have a limited script and all too predictable, especially when they risk any figures.

Be precise - "Rubbish" and "No" are not that helpful. If spurious figures are given, and you know the right ones, call them out. In response to the claim, "60% of British Trade is with Europe", "Wrong!" or "No it isn't!" are OK but "40% of total exports" is better.

Gauge the audience - Home Counties gentry will be put off by heckling that would be enjoyed by others. One heckler in a minority will always have greater problems than several sharing the same views, especially if a substantial part of the audience agrees with them and disagrees with the speaker.

Never let it get out of hand - Don't push the chairman too hard. Don't worry about upsetting die-hard Europhiles - enjoy it! But try not to upset those who are amenable to reason and valid argument

If you can laugh heartily at will, practise it. A ridiculous claim can be destroyed by gales of laughter, as Sir Anthony Meyer and John Monks know to their cost. Meyer at Petersfield, "It is important that we are in EMU to keep control of the others." He could not continue for a solid minute.

Most of all -- Smile! Be pleasant to people! Look them straight in the eye! Be sincere -- and if you aren't -- fake it!

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