Friday 23 August 2013

Abolish spring conference? No thanks!

A working group, appointed by the Liberal Democrats’ Federal Executive (FE), has produced a consultation paper ‘Spring Federal Conference: Cost-Neutral Options for the future’ [pdf], which includes the option of curtailing or even abolishing the party’s spring conference.

I should say at the outset that, even though I’m a member of the party’s Federal Conference Committee (FCC), which organises the conference, I have had no inkling of these proposals until now because the working group has not presented its views to the FCC. We will have to comment in the same way as every other party member has a right to, so here are my initial views.

This is not the first time anyone has proposed to abolish the spring conference. There was a previous attempt under Charles Kennedy’s party leadership. The idea was scotched after it became clear there were many reasons not to abolish it, and that conference would not support the proposal, let alone provide the two-thirds majority required to amend the party’s constitution.

There are a number of reasons why curtailing or abolishing the spring conference is a bad idea. Here are the first five that spring immediately to mind.
  1. The move is presented as a financial necessity but is not due to be implemented until after 2015, by which time the difficulties caused by the sudden withdrawal of Short and Cranborne money in 2010 may or may not have abated.
  2. The value of spring conference cannot be measured in purely financial terms. We know that many members come to conference to take part in the extensive training programme, to help develop policy by attending debates or consultation sessions, or for other reasons such as networking (see page 4 of the consultation paper). The training programme, in particular, can be put together only through the arrangement of the weekend conference package with meeting rooms and hotels. Thus abolition or curtailment would be a false economy. The spring conference is not a loss-leader but a good opportunity to provide economies of scale, which is why the other parties, even without party democracy, also have weekend events.
  3. The ability of party members to hold the party to account would be diminished if abolition were to take place. To be precise, it would be halved.
  4. The ability of the party to make policy would be severely affected. Without a spring conference, the party would be unable to make policy more than once a year. There would also be less opportunity for consultative sessions. Only the Federal Policy Committee (FPC) would be able to fill the gap, yet it has not been consulted at all about the FE’s proposals. The net result would therefore be more policy-making on the hoof.
  5. One idea mooted in the FE’s paper is to reduce the spring conference to a one-day event, but has anyone actually thought what a one-day conference agenda might look like? For s start, it would not run from 9am to 6pm because people would not be able to arrive in time, no matter where the event is held. This would mean a loss of debating time in any case. But when you also allow time for the leader’s speech, the obligatory sessions for reports from various party bodies, and constitutional amendments (which must be debated), there would be hardly any time left for actual debate.
There is one silk purse that could be made from this particular pig’s ear. When abolition was last mooted, income from the spring conference rose significantly. It broke even in one year, as people worked harder to make the event pay. With next spring’s event in a new location likely to be popular (York), perhaps this will happen again.

This post was written by Gareth Epps, who is a member of the Liberator Collective and is also a directly-elected member of the Liberal Democrats’ Federal Conference Committee. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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