Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Future of Party Conferences

My post yesterday about the cost if policing party conferences has sparked off quite a debate, with the majority of commenters saying that they are worth the price of the escalating policing costs. Many make the point that if the parties cancelled the conferences for this reason the terrorists would have won. It's a fair point and one I have some sympathy with. However, let's look at the wider issue of what useful purpose party conferences serve nowadays.

A conference is, by definition, a meeting for people to discuss and exchange views. But that's not what party conferences are any longer. Nowadays they have become more akin to party rallies, where like minded people meet to cheer their party leaders. Very little substantive policy decisions are taken at party conferences, regardless of party. The LibDems still have agenda setting powers and discuss minute policy details, but the party leadership does its best to ignore anything uncomfortable which emerges. Their conferences does, it has to be said, still have some meaning. But the conferences of the big two parties are so stage managed, and put on purely as a showcase, that they have little long term meaning. OK, momentous events sometimes happen at party conferences, (witness the ascent of David Cameron at the expense of David Davis) but it is rarely to the advantage of the party concerned. All the travelling media is interested in is seeking out splits, disloyalty and drunken antics. They operate as a herd and once they have decided the conference is tanking, there's no going back.

The only part of most party conferences worth attending is the fringe. Here there can be genuine sparky debate, but again the media is always on the lookout for a negative story. Some leading politicians have given up speaking at fringe meetings because they reckon whatever they say, desperate journalists will jump on any loose language as evidence of a possible leadership bid, or disloyalty to the party leader.

Having said all that, I have attended round twenty Tory Party conferences and several Labour and LibDem conferences too. And I have to say I have enjoyed every one of them*. You meet a lot of different people and it really is a gathering of the tribes. But I still think they they have grown too stage managed and have outlived their usefulness.

Instead of one big party conference each year it would be far better to have two or three regional two day events, spaced throughout the year. They would be party rallies, not full blown conferences, but there would still be opportunities for fringe events and the usual networking and social events. The reason why younger people often cannot attend four day party conferences is because they can't get time off work. If the events ran from Friday afternoon to Sunday lunchtime, a wider range of people would be able to attend. At the moment, all the party conferences are dominated by people who either work in politics, have the time to attend or are ultimate political geeks. Luckily, I qualify on all three counts!

So let's open things up, attract a more diverse range of people and move with the times.

As Mrs Merton would say, let's have a mass debate!

* UPDATE: Actually I take that back. I did not enjoy the 2005 Tory conference at all. Not one little bit!


Anonymous said...

'(witness the ascent of David Cameron at the expense of David Cameron)'

What, theres two of them?? A bit like Ian and Duncan Smith I guess.

Anonymous said...

Do you mean 'rise of David Cameron at the expense of David Davis'?

Anonymous said...

Political conferences are useful for non-full time political aspirants to catch up on what's happening and (occasionally) meet big-wigs. However, they would be better served by long weekend conferences you describe as we only get so much holiday.

Anonymous said...

"The only part of most party conferences worth attending is the fringe"

Absolutely right Iain. And long may they continue, even if Mr Cameron seeks to ban certain, *cough*, eusceptic groups from peeling the veneer of change.

Anonymous said...

Mrs Merton's catchphrase was "Let's have a heated debate!".

I think you've had a freudian moment there Iain.

Chris Paul said...

Well corrected Iain

Anonymous said...

The media do deserve some degree of blame for the demise of Party conferences. Party leaders and machines are afraid to open out debates on issues at conferences as any disagreements are jumped on and reported as party splits and membership discontent. (Old) Labour conferences were historically productive - with real policy decisions and party stances being discussed and concrete decisions being made with the National Executive Committee playing a more prominent role. However, Blair as leader saw the benefits of turning the Party conference into a massive PR stunt replacing substance with style and 'Conservatising' (with a big 'C') the Labour Party conference... and who can blame him? It worked!

Anonymous said...

Your argument seems to be, Iain, that although those attending have a good time and there lots of meeting and debate, it should all be ditched because of the negative way in which the media works. Why should their disfunctionality deprive lots of ordinary party members from enjoying a good annual get-together and chance to meet up with old friends and colleagues?

Anonymous said...

With the rise of the Internet, it seems really quite outdated to have conferences at fixed points so a group of nerds who can afford the week off work can all sit around deciding whether paragraph 5 should be deleted.

Parties can do well without the "rallys". I dare suggest they'll be completely gone by 2015, if not sooner.

Dick the Prick said...

I think we're just in a bit of a nadir at the moment - in more ways than one. Simply because they appear stage managed, which, undoubtedly has become the case, i'd be thinking that it's only a generational blip.

With the ascent and rise of vehicles like this and the vitriol and apoplexy felt by seriously loyal people I think the conference has its purpose. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

These pretenders to the throne are transient yet the party remains and whilst politicains may need to watch their behaviour, us plebs don't and the rallying call and mob mentality of fully paid up party members can scare the life out of any leader. Give it 10 years Iain - then let's see. IMHO.

Anonymous said...

We spend nothing like as much on politics as the US - the Democrat Convention (which I am flying out for!) is spending tens of millions on top of the $50m grant from the Federal Government to the city of Denver for extra security equipment (on top of what Denver is paying out anyway for the priviledge of hosting).

Each Convention probably costs about $100m all in, and that is for one party.

This Presidential eleciton will breach the $1 billion dollar mark, which rather puts our spending on politics in the shade.

It could be said that the US spending levels are obscene, but when you calculate it, it works out at that $1 billion is only $5 every 4 years per voter, so $1.25 a year.

Not too high a price to pay for democracy - and ours is even cheaper. There's plenty wrong with conferences, but the cost isn't it.

Anonymous said...

For those with a long memory:

When did the Conservatives last have a conference where something was debated and decided?

Praguetory said...

I like conferences. Failure to find genuine debate is only a problem for those not looking hard enough.

Anonymous said...

You forget to mention that Party Conferences are dating agencies for political geeks (or maybe in current political parlance "relationship enablers").
I met my husband at a Party conference!

I still enjoy conferences after 20years attendance - but unfortunately am not able to stay up to 4.00 am as in my youth.

I never bother going into the main hall - the fringe and bars etc is where it all happens.

2 day weekends would be super. Somewhere warm (Spain?) would be even better.

Anonymous said...

conferences are so stale and old fashioned.
Thy need modernisation .

Political 'Party conferences' need to to be brought into the 21st century - perhaps online conferencing - with big screens around the country?

dunno... but - at the moment - who really cares about conferences?


Newmania said...

Would that make more juicy work for Conference organisers then ?
Your point about the time to go is a good one but I would still be disappointed if I never got the chance to attend the real thing

Anonymous said...

they are not very interesting to most, it's true. And who can blame anyone for that? Nonetheless, party conferences are the one time that all the party leaders have to account for themselves to their members in some way. Labour conferences are not what they used to be, partly for the benefit of TV and you lot (who, let's face it, would be tearing them apart if the fractiousness of old reappeared), and partly because the old fault lines are simply not there. To suggest, however, that they are nothing but rallies is not true (even if the leaders would prefer it that way). FYI Ian, the Labour Party does have regular regional conferences too and, as far as I understand it, so does (or did) the Tory party, so nothing new there.

Anonymous said...

Agreed. Spot on.

Dick the Prick said...

What happened in 2005 or is that none of our business????

Man in a Shed said...

They are the symptom of a wider problem. That participative political parties are almost effectively extinct.

Joining a political party is getting more and more like supporting a premiership football club. No one local plays, money talks, and the crowds only purpose is to cheer anything and gratefully buy this seasons strip and whatever price its offered. ( The analogy there is with party members getting policies that are completely unexpected - see Labour on welfare and Lib Dems on Tax and Conservatives on Grammar schools ).

The real question is does democracy work when political parties have been reduced to unthinking supporters clubs ?

Anonymous said...

Oh I don't know, I like Conference. 2005 was good, though obviously the circs were one-off, and last year and DC's speech set us up nicely. I didn't like the Heinz 57 varieties of keeping the Thatcherite flame alive and slagging off the leadership fringe nutters, but then I suppose that's what many Tories at Conference like.

Can't we have 4-day Conference to set us up for the new parliamentary session AND the weekend rallies round the country?

neil craig said...

Perhaps the answer would be to keep the press out. Nobody likes them anyway & so long as the conference is playing to them it will have the problems Iain names. OK that wouldn't keep them out entirely but it would keep out the lazy ones .... so 95% isn't bad. There is also a feeling among most of us that if something is going on that we don't know about it must be important. A closed conference might therefore attract quite a few new members.

One reason I was happy to be a Liberal was that, for all its failings, I did believe its conference decisions mattered & still believe they are marginally more listened to.

I was dead chuffed when I got the Scottsh LD conference to unanimouslhy endorse a motion calling for war crimes trials in Yugoslavia to be racially impartial & to include the leaders of the countries that supplied the KLA with guns while they were still a terrorist organisation (ie Clinton, Kohl etc). The commitment to the leaders to listen to confernce is proven by their subsequent silence.

Anonymous said...

Iain, thanks for this post. I've been saying for ages that the Cons Party should think about what it wants a Conference to do, what is it 'for'?

I doubt if we'll ever go back to Conferences making decisions, or even having phony votes, and I entirely endorse your idea of having, say, Spring and Autumn weekends around the country.

One of the best things to use such mini-conferences for is indeed networking, seeing old friends, and discovering that other people have the same problems, but have come up with interesting new solutions.

And it might also be useful to have closed sessions with (Shadow) Ministers for some frank talking and exchanges of views.

Raedwald said...

Ah yes. The three main parties that 98.6% of voters aren't members of have annual conferences, don't they.

How did they manage when the Tories had over 2m members and Labour around 1m and venues were smaller? Now the Tories with about 250k members and Labour with probably no more than 150k voting members can both fit comfortably into the Macclesfield Travelodge, or would do if the other factors that seek to fill seats now rather than turn members away as in the old days didn't apply.

The National Trust has over 3m members. Why isn't their annual conference televised? For goodness sake, the RHS and the Women's Institute both have more members than Labour, but the BBC don't send their entire OB resource to cover their annual meeting.

No, the cameras and news teams are there for one reason only. To catch people who take themselves far too seriously and who love themselves far too much making utter prats of themselves. Kinnock dipping his arse in the sea. Margaret Beckett murdering 'House of the Rising Sun' (Oh how I wish I could find that clip on Youtube!). And so on.

Broadcasters know that alcohol, the adulation of the uncritical and overweening narcissism is a pretty good recipe for catching at least one prat. As long as politicians are vain enough to believe that the media interest revolves around serious political policy issues rather than catching the daft sods with their hair down, the seaside conference will continue.

The Green Man said...

A J Balfour famously stated that he would rather take advice from his valet than the Conservative Conference. That said, in 1963 and 2005, the conference played a vital part in the emergence of the party leader, while the reaction of theconference to proposed leadership election rules in 1997 saw the current rules adopted, so Balfour may have been wrong on that one.

Anonymous said...

Dave won't want to come face to face with mass membership once he starts deploying the Dave agenda-and that's before we get to Europe and the EPP pledge.

Anonymous said...

I think everyone is missing the most important point; how on earth can it cost multi millions to police any event! The total cost of policing football in london is considerably less for the whole year;
how the hell can any individual event cost this much?

Anonymous said...

I don't think I'll ever forget the most ironic moment of my life so far at Labour Party conference in Brighton...I think it was in 2005. I, along with hundreds of other party members (including Jack Straw, then Foreign Secretary), was cheerfully queuing up to go through the stringent security checks before we could enter the fringe events at the The Grand Hotel in see Martin McGuinness being rushed through security by the police because he had to get to a meeting in said venue!!!!!! Priceless.

Anonymous said...

Whilst what you say may be true of Tory conferences, Labour conferences are part of the party's constitution. Conference is, for the Labour Party, the party's sovereign decision making body - and whilst this may have been eroded recently (through a mixture of modern stage management, and the inevitability of ministers having to chart their own course to an extent, as was the case with previous Labour governments), I suspect that the role of conference will grow should Labour go into opposition again.
On the point that a number of Tory bloggers have raised about Labour conferences costing more than Tory ones to police - well, that's because the Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary and Defence Secretary attend Labour conference. It also has more attendees (in the form of international visitors, lobbyists etc) that Tory conference, again because Labour is the governing party. I'm sure you can concede that Labour conference is more of a terrorist target because of the fact that Labour is in power? You're not whining that Tory conference costs more to police that Lib Dem conference...

Anonymous said...

The Future of Party Conferences

They Will Have Nothing To Do
Less To Say

No Raisin D'Etre
No Reason To Be
No Reason To Be On TV