“this is my first conference”… Prospect(s) is/are looking good.


Democracy on a huge scale. I was in Row F, Seat 54
Democracy on a huge scale.
I was in Row F, Seat 54

I’m freshly back from my first ever Trade Union conference.

It was the Prospect Union conference to be precise, Voices Shaping Change, which involved over 500 people spending two and half days in Glasgow.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but its safe to say that I’ve walked away better informed, very impressed and quite a bit inspired.

Here are some observations on three key learning points I took away from Glasgow: Encouragement, Openness and Professionalism.

Encouragement…. “this is my first time at Conference”.  One thing that struck me during the conference was the amount of clapping you do. Every speaker gets a round of applause, an acknowledgement to say thank you for their contribution. Standing up to speak from a stage in front of 500+ people is a daunting task, and should to be recognised.

I’ve been to a few other events recently where the speakers have hardly been acknowledged. Regardless of whether you agree or not, it is good manners to recognise the effort people have put in to share something with you.

Where the Prospect conference really impressed me was how some speakers got a round of applause BEFORE they had spoken. This is not as strange as it seems. A number of people stepped up to the podium and said, “this is my first time to speak at conference”.

This triggered an instant round of applause. Recognition from the audience that the speaker was taking a big step into the unknown and offering them encouragement, willing them to do well. You could see the impact, smiles and people swelling with confidence.

What a brilliant thoughtful thing to do. If I had to pick one thing that summarised the general tone of the conference, it would be that; respectful encouragement.

A lively debate on the Scottish referendum
A lively debate on the Scottish referendum

Openness. The most democratic thing I’ve experienced. I knew I was going to experience  live ‘democracy’, but I wasn’t prepared for it to be so open and transparent. Debate was carried out respectfully, with lots of evidence and well reasoned argument.

It was the degree to which the Executive and Officers were happy to be questioned in public debate that surprised me. A number of the motions proposed raised questions about performance. They were all debated without people turing to denial, defensiveness or blaming others.

There are many other organisations that might benefit from adopting this model of allowing the service users to publicly question and discuss the performance of the organisation. I wonder if we would have had a Mid Staffs Hospital scandal if there had been this kind of public scrutiny and debate available to the hospital service users?

I don’t know if this is how all union conferences work, but I think there is a lot that can be learnt by anyone interested in engaging with citizens, patients, the public and service users (or whatever you choose to call people) in an open and transparent manner.

Professionalism, this should have been no surprise….. Prospect do badge themselves as “the trade union for professionals”.  I’m sure there was plenty of frantic activity happening in the background, but for a newbie like me everything ran like clockwork. When you think about the scale of things this is astonshing:

  • 500+ people from a hugely diverse range of professions (from archeologists to nuclear scientists),
  • 100 motions to be debated,
  • A panel session on a hugely contentious issue,
  • Breakout sessions (with feedback),
  • Voting on motions (included card votes and tellers) and
  • A Gala Dinner (plus disco).

For students of complex adaptive systems this had it all going on. The process of debating motions and voting on them is a great example of a complexity. There is little certainty about what the result will be, and a good speaker can do a lot to influence the voting; so many variables that cannot be controlled. I learnt a lot about the difference between winning or loosing a motion or even having it remitted. The Standing Orders Committee have a very important role in the process of navigating a way through the complex issues (more on that in a future post).

When in Glasgow - Irn Bru the morning after the Gala Dinner
When in Glasgow – Irn Bru the morning after the Gala Dinner

What did I walk away with? Overall my two and a half days at the Prospect Conference in Glasgow were brilliant, thank you.

I’m walking away far more knowledgeable and informed about a range of things.

I’m hugely impressed by lots of the people I met and the way it was organised.

Finally I’m inspired. Inspired to tell people about how good my experience of democracy was, and why they should get involved.



So, what’s the PONT?

  1. Encouraging fellow speakers at conferences is more than just being polite. It  makes a huge difference. Should we be clapping everyone BEFORE they speak?
  2. Democracy is a complex and unpredictable sport. Done on a large scale it is fascinating being part of it.
  3. There is a lot to be learnt from unions who have been practicing this sort of democracy for many years. Any organisation that wants to properly engage and listen to service users or citizens should take a look.

This is my favourite image of Clydeport, Glasgow. A painting of the Dockside Crane outside my hotel window, doing what it was built to do.




About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here: https://whatsthepont.com/churchill-fellowship/

2 Responses

  1. geof edwatds

    “Democracy …..Done on a large scale it is fascinating being part of it.”

    Well whilst you were away sunning your self in the Costa del dreich, the rest of us were voting in the very large scale EU (and in England a smaller scale clutch of little Englander hoop thieves) elections. Not sure I found it that fascinating, but who knows, something polemic might come out of it

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