Curtailing (to one day), let alone abolishing, Spring Conference would weaken the party. It would do that through seriously reducing the opportunity for accountability and democratic debate within the Liberal Democrats. Internal democracy strengthens and unites us as a party. The commentariat has expressed surprise that there has been more dissent amongst Conservatives over the coalition than amongst Lib Dems. That is not because there are not many in our party unhappy about coalition, or with where they feel Nick Clegg may take the party. But the collective decision of May 2010 to enter coalition is felt to bind precisely because it was taken democratically within the party. Hence we stick more easily together, accepting the present strategy, even if (somewhat) doubtful about it. If we lost that sense of coherence and common purpose, it would be very difficult to rebuild. Remember how fissiparous the old Liberal party proved to be in the inter-war period. So my response to the question does Spring Conference have a fundamental role to play in party democracy is an unequivocal yes. The consultation also asks whether we are concerned about under representation of certain regions. Yes, I am concerned at the paucity of Scots & Welsh representation, which could be dealt with by an option not considered in the consultation, namely moving Spring Conference to a May weekend. This has the following advantages:
- Unlike a one-day event, it is consistent with the constitution
- Better attendance would be encouraged by better weather, across the UK, but especially for those travelling furthest
- As it would not clash with Scots & Welsh Spring Conferences, it should encourage better attendance from Scotland & Wales (see consultation paper paras 3.5 & 4.9)
- Those facing May local elections are also less likely to attend in March (my own reason, facing re-election, for not attending the Sheffield Spring Conference)
- As Westminster, Devolved and Local elections now (except European years) take place in early May, mid/late May is a good time for the party to take stock, and so for accountability – as well as the informal exchange of recent experience, such an important part of the event.