The Liberal Democrats’ Federal Executive (FE) has set up a working group to consider abolishing the party’s spring conference. It is not clear who will chair this working group; even the Federal Conference Committee’s officers have not yet been informed. In any event, this will not affect this year’s spring conference.
It is not the first time such a change has been mooted. The reasons this time are said to be financial but there may also be political motives, since the past two spring conferences have been embarrassing for the leadership.
The spring conference cannot be abolished without a constitutional amendment, which requires a two-thirds majority vote of the Federal Conference. Clause 6.6 of the party constitution permits the FE to cancel a conference “in exceptional circumstances” (which in practice means coinciding with a general election) but the FE has no unilateral power to cancel conferences in perpetuity.
The party’s Federal Conference has been held twice a year ever since the merger in 1988, when this arrangement was enshrined in the new party’s constitution. The autumn conference in September is part of Britain’s traditional party conference season, and continues the practice of the pre-merger Liberal Party, which held an annual conference (the ‘Assembly’) each September. The spring conference in March, on the other hand, was a bastard child of the merger negotiations.
The pre-merger Liberals held only one Assembly a year but also had a body called the Party Council, which held a one-day meeting four times a year. This council had about 300 voting members. It had ‘interim’ policy-making powers (i.e. it could make party policy but could not overrule the Assembly), so its policy debates tended to be limited to topical or specialist issues. The council had a more valuable role, however, of holding the party’s officers and committees to account, which it did very thoroughly (unlike the cursory report-back sessions at today’s Liberal Democrat conferences). More informally, the council also provided a platform for unknowns to become known and rise through the ranks of the party, which was useful for members pursuing a career in party organisation rather than parliamentary ambitions.
The pre-merger SDP had a bizarre set-up, with one annual ‘roving’ conference, where a single conference would be held in three different towns in succession. The SDP conference had few powers, since the party’s leaders had been traumatised by battles with the far left in the Labour Party, to the extent that they did not trust even the SDP’s tame membership.
During the merger negotiations, the Liberals refused to accept the SDP’s roving conference because it was an expensive shambles. The SDP refused to accept the Liberals’ party council because it smacked of dangerous grassroots power. The spring conference was the compromise they agreed on, but neither party felt any enthusiasm for it.
The spring conference is just as much a Federal Conference as the autumn conference, with parity under the party constitution. In practice, the spring conference has less influence, since it is a shorter event and attracts little media coverage. It also attracts few if any commercial exhibitors, so struggles to make money.
If the spring conference loses money and embarrasses the leader, it is easy to see why some party bigwigs might be keen to get rid of it. The party’s members should offer them a trade-off. We’ll swap the spring conference for the restoration of a party council, where we will hold these bigwigs more thoroughly to account. Is that a deal?