Congress 2020 behind the scenes

Congress 2020: Our first online Congress

This has been the first year that Congress couldn’t take place in its usual physical format. We have learned a lot as part of taking as much as we could of our flagship event into a new online format.


By March this year – a lot of our arrangements were already underway for Congress. Our exhibition area was almost fully booked. The external factors and influences around the pandemic made for challenging times.

We had to think about emerging technology trends and how we could make Congress work. Our monthly Congress Project Team which usually meets monthly, met weekly from July. We were covering a lot of new ground.

It was important that Congress went ahead. It’s a key part of our movement’s democratic process. But this meant we had to do it in agreement with our stakeholders, as it affected all our organisations. Key stages included securing agreement from the Executive and General Council on our planned approach. We kept unions up to date via the monthly briefings in our affiliates’ circular, TUC Mail.

We needed to have a flexible approach throughout as government guidance kept changing, and we had to change plans sometimes at very short notice. We had to increase our communications to deal with this.

Our public-facing programme details were on our website. We used social media and sent out conference news emails, to those who had signed up in advance.

We decided to scale it down and simplify things where we could. We went from a four day Congress to a two day event. There were five debates on Monday and Tuesday morning. There were keynote speeches from TUC President Ged Nichols, Frances O’Grady and Keir Starmer MP. The afternoon general council meetings discussing the motions, were closed events.

We listed the fringe programme by providing links and descriptions, getting organisations that wanted to run fringes to apply in a consistent format for our listings, but leaving the running of the actual calls to them. Most used Zoom webinars for this, but others chose systems they were more familiar with. The fringe was popular with increased attendance numbers, as we were able to open it up to people outside our normal delegate cohort.

We decided not to hold an exhibition this year. We carried forward bookings to 2021.

Documents were all digital, aside from a small print run of the General Council report. We provided paper versions as a reasonable adjustment for anyone who needed them.

We kept the submitting of motions processes the same. There was more work on advance composites. In recent years we have developed a separate live motions website to handle updates to running order and voting, which we maintained again for this year.


We wanted to deliver a high quality event, working with our AV production company. They delivered the open sessions like a TV broadcast, taking up a lot of our main conference room for the stage set and mixing equipment.

An earlier plan was to have a small audience present as well, but in the end this wasn’t possible due to safety reasons. We made sure the working space was socially distanced, and as safe as we could make it. Health and safety was a constant consideration throughout all our planning considerations. All external parties produced detailed Covid method statements and risk assessments. People in the studio were kept to minimal numbers.

We decided to broadcast the open sessions of debates and keynote speeches, embedded onto our website’s Congress pages using Ustream. We advertised the link on email and on social media during the sessions.

Keynote speeches were presented by Frances O’Grady, Ged Nichols and Keir Starmer. They were also broadcast as Lives on the TUC Facebook page, to reach a larger live audience than those who had pre-registered.

We uploaded the conference film footage onto YouTube after the event as an archive. Video was made available to unions who wanted to clip their own people’s significant speeches to use on social media.

The approach worked well because it enabled us to deliver a more ‘textured event’ of a high standard for our national broadcast coverage.  

We built a backdrop set design and a platform.  Our president Ged Nichols, Mary Bousted, Frances O’Grady and Paul Nowak were based on the platform. They were four metre distanced from anyone else in the hall as they were the only people not wearing masks.

We decided that the whole Congress would be live so that information was up to date. This put a lot of pressure on repeated checks that everything worked well. In our research we found that other organisations have chosen to record speeches and presentations in advance. This may be worth considering in the future.

Our social media promoted clips of Congress videos and film footage.  


We chose the Zoom platform to bring in our contributors as it was familiar to many people and easy to use.

A lot of work went on behind the scenes for union nominations of speakers in advance. We didn’t give access to anyone else other than those who the President agreed could speak.

Keynote speakers and the president were broadcast live. Other speakers took part via a Zoom webinar platform. Blocks of speakers waited in Zoom and were mixed into the production in turn as the President called them.

We had a team of speaker co-ordinators/curators, drawn from across TUC staff. They provided presentation & technical advice to a block of speakers, and ran practice sessions to make sure they were comfortable and ready to be called on the day. At Congress itself, they were in communication with their block of speakers via WhatsApp. I took on a production director role and was the contact point with the production company and those on the platform. For example when someone didn’t come on to the call or were late, we were able to work around that.  

The zoom attendee link was only open to the speakers themselves and our General Council members. Speaker management is going to be an area to improve on further in the future.

Audience attendance

We wanted to attract more people to view the debates and keynote speeches. Because of Zoom fatigue, we assumed many who expressed an interest would drop out on the day, so we set a high target number.

We pre-recruited 3,400 subscribers to our email list, mainly union members. Outreach included contacting unions and stakeholders to pass the message on. We also did paid advertising on Facebook and in different publications, such as Labour Research Department or LabourList blog. Some unions featured Congress on their websites and in their twitter feed, which was helpful in bringing in their own members.

We mobililsed our subscriber list with a short email journey in the run-up to the event, previewing what would happen and encouraging them to sign up for fringes as well as the public broadcasts. During Congress, we sent preview emails as a more timely reminder. This helped us ensure as many as possible actually turned out on the day.

General council meetings and motions.

We decided not to have registered delegates this year. Motions and ballots were discussed in private General Council sessions in the afternoons, whilst the fringe programme was running for the public.

We used Skype for Business to handle these calls rather than Zoom, as the General Council were already familiar with it from their online meetings.  We put in place online balloting and voting, using Civica’s platform, with weighted voting to reflect our unions’ sizes in card votes.


Things went well for our first virtual Congress, despite the chaotic external environment. However, there’s always room for improvement and our experience has already given us pointers on where we could improve the format. We look forward to emerging digital trends and using what works best.

Please get in touch if you would like to know more details or want to share what you are doing with us. Michelle Gregory,uk