By Paul Goodman
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A key question for modern political leaderships is: what role do you want party members to play? How important to you is regular contact with them? Do you want them to have a role in policy-making? Above all, perhaps: is your conversation with them one way only or two-way: in other words, is it a real exchange that is grassroots-up as leadership down? Do you think members really matter anyway – or do you reallty see them at best an anachronism and at worst an embarrassment?
It was reported this morning that Spring Forum "is to be cancelled". This was never likely to be the full story. The event gives the leadership a kind of mini-version of the TV coverage won each October by party conference. For this reason alone, neither David Cameron nor CCHQ have reason to pull the whole event – a course which in any case would only have stirred complaints of autocracy and centralism. CCHQ issued a statement earlier this afternoon, the most important part of which reads as follows:
"We have decided to try a new kind of Spring Forum in 2012. It will still include the meeting of the National Convention as required by the constitution.
The rest of the event will have a different look and feel to previous years. It will be a one day event and will be focussed on the issues concerning the Voluntary Party. The agenda will be designed to promote a conversation amongst senior volunteers, senior politicians and the professional party about issues of concern to the Voluntary Party including areas such as campaigning best practice, membership, CPF, candidate selection and the Boundary Review.
All members of the National Convention and other senior activists will be invited to attend."
The statement also says that "the feedback from members is that the traditional Spring Forum is now prohibitively expensive" and "now the Conservative Party is in Government, security concerns and costs are an important factor". The reasoning on security might as well be applied to the October Conference itself, and it's not impossible to imagine some senior party figures doing so. However, Spring Forum apparently makes a loss and is certainly poorly attended. The announcement suggests a smaller event that is mostly closed to the media.
The case for this approach is that the CPF has a new role in party policy-making (a party in Coalition can't lean on the Downing Street policy unit), that the Spring Forum should reflect this, and that there's therefore no reason why all its sessions should be reported. But the questions at the start of this article remain unanswered. And a one-day event would certainly make it easier to minimise or abandon fringe meetings – which party members tend to like but Downing Street tends to view as "unhelpful". I understand that final details are yet to be discussed by the board.
Attendance at annual conferences may have risen in recent years. But membership has fallen to below 200,000. The stark fact is that the party, like others, is facing a future without mass membership: indeed, in some parts of the country there are no members at all. Real conversation among party members – not just "senior volunteers" – might not stem further decline. But without it, such a fate is certain. It must include proper debate if it is indeed to be real. Which in turn means as a start at least one balloted motion for debate at next October's conference.