This year the Conference season has come to disrupt a new September session of Parliament. Taking three weeks off so all three main parties can have their conference seems an old fashioned indulgence. It has been made more vexatious by the changing nature of party conferences.
The Conservative party conference used to be a big annual event, when the members competed by ballot to get a place at the seaside. The conference allowed members to speak and vote on important issues, to criticise Ministers and senior officials of the party, or to lobby them to make things better. There could be a sense of danger for the platform and the leadership, forcing them to think and to defend their positions.
Today it is very different. There will be no great debates on the floor of the conference about the things that cause disagreement. There will be no knife edge votes, as the membership tries to assert a different view. There will be lots of lobbyists from companies and organisations, well mannered presentations on a range of topics, and a bored media looking for trouble when it is in short supply.
There will still be lots of fringe meetings, but many of these will be paid for by interest groups and will be polite exchanges on a number of technical and professional matters with no great issues of principle or politics intruding.
I will go again this year to the conference, because I have been asked to speak on various topics at various meetings. I do think, however, it is time for the parties to move on, to recognise that the modern world does not want a four day party conference. Members think it a dear week and not always a fruitful one, which is why we no longer need a ballot box to settle who can go.
The death of the conference is a product of the era of spin. It is, apparently, bad form to show disagreement in public. It would put people off, we are told, to see that within a large party which is naturally a coalition of views and interests there are people with differing views and voices. I take the opposite view. I think it a sign of party strength and democratic vitality if people within parties disagree and debate. They should of course stick to the issues and avoid venom and personality abuse. Proper debate about things that matter is what we should be offering. Parties have democratic ways of settling disagreements and need to show the public how a view has been formed or a position arrived at.
Now we have a coalition government between two parties, we can have some debate between the coalition partners. Mr Clegg has assured his party that they will be fighting as Lib Dems at the next election, scotching rumours of the Lib Dems and Conservatives entering an electoral pact. In Wokingham my advice to Councillors is to continue to run the Council with two parties, one as the majority and the other as the opposition. On Parliamentary matters I have always avoided personal attack in elections on the Lib Dem candidate anyway, but am happy to debate openly differences on tax or Europe or anything else that makes us two different parties.