Opinion: Socks, Sandals and Party Democracy-or Why Spring Conference Is so Important

Paddy Ashdown talks on "The global power shift" in Brussels March 1st 2012 -  Some rights reserved by PhOtOnQuAnTiQuE Do you remember your first conference? I certainly remember mine.

It was in Birmingham several years ago; stewards had a quick look through my bag inside the conference centre, and then I started queueing for a coffee. I suddenly realised that the man in front of me was the great Paddy Ashdown. I was so starstruck, I had to leave!

Once my overwhelming awe had dissipated, I got lost in a whirlwind of speeches, debates and policy-making; and that was just a coffee shop. Sadly I’d forgotten my sandals, I have to confess I didn’t see as many as the right-wing media would have us believe.

This year, and I won’t say how many years on it is, I will return to Federal Conference as an elected member of the Federal Conference Committee and as a Prospective Parliamentary Candidate. And I still thrive on every minute of the political bubble that Liberal Democrat conferences create.

There is a reason why we call Federal Conference “Democracy in Action”.

As a party of government, our conferences have become more lively but at the same time more resilient. On process, the debates have stretched on regarding enhanced security, more corporate attendance and higher levels of media scrutiny. And on policy, deliberations have emerged between ideology and pragmatism. And people may sit in either camp depending on the subject being discussed.

One of my key persuaders in signing people up to become members, is that they as individuals will have the opportunity to shape party policy. We are a progressive centre-left party that still maintains the core belief in democracy shaping the future of the country. But without the forum in which to have these debates, the gravitas that we attach to party democracy could be lost.

This year’s Federal Conference presents a consultation paper entitled “Spring Conference: Cost-Neutral Options for the Future”.

It’s important to note here, as others have done, that this consultation paper was not presented to the Federal Conference Committee prior to publication.

The other parties tend to have policy forums or networking events around the same time, the Liberal Democrats have been resolute in maintaining a spring conference running for a couple of days. This has given us critical media coverage, extensive opportunity to shape and develop not only our party policy but government policy and allows that blissful political bubble to rejuvenate thousands of people prior to elections being held in May all over the country.

As Liberal Democrats, we will always argue that cost should be no barrier to democracy. This is much applicable in reforming the House of Lords as it is in debating policy in our own party. Indeed, to present the value of conference in purely economic terms does the very nature of conference and the party an injustice.

The proposal to remove Spring conference would ultimately halve members’ opportunities to debate and form policy, from consultation through to implementation.

I urge everyone who is attending conference on Saturday to go to the Consultation session, demonstrate their interviews yet to party democracy and their right to hold the party into account, and object to these proposals. And if you can’t do that, respond to the consultation paper on the Liberal Democrat website, and help us keep the Democrat in the Liberal Democrats.

* Kelly-Marie Blundell is a member of Federal Policy Committee, Vice Chair of the Social Security Working Group and previous parliamentary candidate

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Richard Shaw 10th Sep '13 - 6:05pm

    I love going to Conference but am unable to spare the time, annual leave and money to attend a 5 day conference – for me the Spring weekend conference is essential in order to participate in policy making, however brief.

  • rogerroberts 10th Sep '13 - 7:26pm

    I hope all who attend in Glasgow have a great time – might see them there ! Wonder if I will be the delegate with the longest record of attendance. I was supposed to attend the Ilfracombe Liberal Assembly – was that 1952 ?- a bout of
    measles stopped my journey there ! Got to Buxton 1953 and (hard to believe ) I invited the 1954 Assembly to my home town Llandudno where in 1954 I was Assembly local arrangements secretary ! Have campaigned for Liberalism all these decades . Good times and bad. No intention of rejecting MY Liberalism or letting others, wherever they are from undermine or destroy the party to which so many of us have dedicated our lives.

  • Andrew Emmerson 11th Sep '13 - 8:21am

    As were in government it’s become painfully obvious we’ve not had enough policy to get us through that twice a year is severely limiting to our ability to think and do. If we wish to continue as a democratic party then retaining spring conference is essential. I really think we should be extending it not cutting it

  • Stuart Smith 11th Sep '13 - 2:52pm

    Do away with Federal Spring Conference and replace it with an English Regional Conference. That way it acts as a proper springboard for members in England into the local elections.

    Federal Spring Conference tends to ignore the parliamentary elections In Scotland and Wales and sometimes Europe too.

  • We should continue with the Spring weekend conference for the reasons set out by Kelly-Marie. We should not move it to London because London is an expensive place both to get to by public transport and to stay in over night. I it just possible to get from say Yorkshire to London and back in a day and take in a conference starting at 1000 and ending at 1700 but the amount of time available for debate would really be too short. Birmingham would be a better bet – it has good transport links and is cheaper for representatives to stay in making a two day event more reasonable.

  • Well said Kelly-Marie.

  • Jonathan Brown 12th Sep '13 - 8:57pm

    Great article Kelly-Marie. I particularly liked your point about attracting new members with the ability to influence policy.

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