Izzy Westbury: No
Conference. Noun. A formal meeting of people with a shared interest. Are important policy decisions made at party conference? No. Is it a meeting of ordinary party members? No. Does it have any effect on public interest? Barely. Lamentable though this may be, the nostalgic image of the grass-roots, policy-changing party conference, ladies and gentlemen, is long dead.
The first thing to acknowledge is that the focus has shifted and the aim of the party conference nowadays is a much simpler one: to survive. Certainly conference represents a reassertion of common goals and a once-a-year chance for like-minded people to converge upon an appropriately mundane location. But on stage, where the ‘real’ stuff supposedly happens, there’s nothing real happening at all.
The crucial point, however, is that although it may just appear a large theatrical production, everything that party leaders and MPs say and do is scrutinised intensely by the media. For them, it is a question of making it through in one piece. Ask any high-profile politician and I would imagine that they don’t use the word ‘enjoy’ to describe party conference. For them it’s a dress rehearsal, a confirmation that they can withstand the scrutiny and that they have the resilience to carry it off when the real thing – the election – comes around.
Anyone remember the David Miliband banana moment? Yes – that awkward photo. Does anyone remember any of the important and constructive ideas he set out in his speech? No, nor me, until I looked them up. The media is much quicker to pick up on any shortcomings or slip-ups than any real positives that transpire. But this is a fact of life, and one which most politicians have learned to deal with. If you can get through conference, you can get through anything. ‘The aim of party conference: to survive’
Party conference is not built for the now. It isn’t a hunting ground for grass-roots activists; in fact, conferences, with their professional lobbyists and free drinks events, have had to embrace and indulge big business. Funding is becoming increasingly scarce, so the stakes have been raised. It is all too apparent that money is the key issue now, and the parties need as much as they can possibly muster.
The impact of a conference on a wider scale also remains – the public may not give a damn at that moment in time, but it sets the standards for the future. A conference is a public stage where the politicians can practice getting it right. The value of a large-scale dress-rehearsal, and the money at stake, mean that party conference plays an important a role as ever.
Patrick Kennedy: Yes
Now look,” intoned Ed Mili- band, in his recent, courageous, autocue-less oration; “let me tell you a bit of insight into Conference”. He looked mock- sheepish. Coping with the meet- ing, he confessed, “can be a bit of trial.” I’m glad someone’s admitted it.
Parties presumably need token rituals of solidarity, wheeling out the tribal elders and arriviste sha- mans to reassure the faithful that the magic’s still there. Which is great – if you believe that incubat- ing the parochial narcissism of party membership in tiny cliques is genuinely healthy.
Times have changed. Sixty years ago, around four million Britons were signed-up members of a political party. Today, a paltry one per cent of the electorate are zealous enough to send off for their coloured rosettes and cutesy car- stickers.
Party spirit is not – thank God – a central feature of most of our lives. Ours is the age of the discerning, if fashionably apathetic, consumer voter, coolly shopping about for the deal of the day. In blissful post- ideological Britain, party confer- ences look at best redundantly antique, and at worst gawkily out of touch. Miliband’s recent rhetorical triumph at Labour’s Manchester gathering would have been so much more if he’d just cut out the conference and spoken directly to voters.
Even if the bulk of the conference seems vaguely irrelevant, we are interested in juicy sound- bites from the leader’s speech. And that’s a point: conferences apparently exist largely as glossy plat- forms for a speech directed at the people who didn’t turn up. The real audience is no longer the fawning party loyalists packing the aisles, but the great world beyond. (In fact, the fawning party loyalists are falling away as we speak. Bizarrely, three-quarters of last year’s conference populace were reporters and other commercial hangers-on.)
Conferences are hardly about honestly consulting the party grassroots; boil them down and they’re merely inefficient exhibition spaces for cheesy demagogues to air broad-brush generalisations. We the apathetic want to hear big rhetoric, highfalutin, soaring visions, but you don’t need to hold a massive ego-festival to justify it. You could sweep away the tendentious panellists and impassioned leaflet stalls and nobody would notice. Get rid of the conference detritus and speak to the nation. It goes without saying that party power is invested in the few at the top: if they were still loosely democratic, then conferences might be useful for crunching out policy. But if, alternatively, these partisan clapping-sessions are put on merely to nurse fragile tribal identities, then Heaven help us. We’re supposed to be “one nation”, aren’t we?