Ian Pendlington makes the case for the importance of party conferences.
It is autumn conference season again and, like Christmas, political activists, lobbyists and journalists approach this time of the year with a mixture of childlike excitement and trepidation. Equal verve is directed towards the regular debates over the relevance of the party conference. Each year, there seems to be less party activists, more lobbying, and more journalists attempting to stir up divisions as they report back to a markedly bored public.
Conferences have certainly changed since I attended my first one for the Conservative Party in 1996. Little Union Jack flags were put on our seats as we filed in to hear John Major speak. When it was over we all got to our feet, sang ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, and waved our paper flags like a second rate version of Last Night of the Proms at the seaside.
Now it is very different. Instead of Elgar, a party leader will walk on to stage against a pumping track from some modern rock band to show they are ‘down wiv the yoof’. Commercial lobbyists now outnumber party loyalists, who are dwindling at an alarming rate for all three of major parties. The seaside towns have been abandoned for smarter cities aimed at attracting the commerce. Conferences are no longer a place to hear, discuss and maybe even vote on your party’s policies (or even if you can vote, like at the Lib Dems, your vote is only advisory). Rather, the audience hall has become a forum to listen to anodyne speeches from Ministers and Shadow Ministers, written by young Oxbridge researchers and approved by the Leader’s Office. Even fringe events, once an oasis of controversy, seem to be becoming blander, offering such colourless titles as ‘How Can We Improve Our Children’s Education?’ A Junior Minister will give a speech tweaked depending on the audience he or she faces: most of whom have turned up to bag a free lunch and swipe a branded pen or stress ball.
Commercial lobbyists now outnumber party loyalists, who are dwindling at an alarming rate for all three of major parties.
This change in the way conferences operate has been entirely conscious on behalf of our political parties, for whom it has become an important cash cow (as anyone who has to fork out on accreditation fees, transport and hotel bills can attest). Party members are seen as pests who spend relatively little and may speak out or vote against the leadership, whilst commercial lobbyists buy expensive advertising in order to host a fringe event or have a stand. Yet, for all of this, I believe that the Conservatives’ annual autumn event is still the beating heart of our political process. Many seminal moments at conferences have helped define the way we see and relate to our Leaders, not to mention playing a vital role in shaping party’s decision on who to select as its leader and thus what political direction to travel. In 2005, David Cameron arrived in Blackpool as an outsider for the leadership, yet his ‘off the cuff’ address to delegates and ‘Blair with hair’ look won over a large section of party activists from David Davis who flunked his own speech.
Over the years, we have seen numerous examples of leaders defining themselves (and by definition their party) at conferences. We think of Thatcher’s resilience in the face of the Brighton bombing, Neil Kinnock facing down Derek Hatton and the militant tendency, Tony Blair and his groundbreaking speeches that symbolised the shift from old Labour to new.
Conferences have also become the acid test for a leader in trouble. Iain Duncan-Smith was replaced as Conservative Party leader weeks after his much-derided ‘quiet man’ speech in 2003. Gordon Brown was able to shore up his faltering leadership with his ‘no time for a novice’ speech in the midst of the economic crisis in 2008. This year, Ed Miliband walks into Brighton, having endured a torrid year that has seen a stretching lead for Labour evaporate. He must have a successful conference to keep mutterings over his future at bay.
Conferences have also become the acid test for a leader in trouble.
For many of our charities and non-governmental organisations, it is the one time of the year they can directly approach politicians and ordinary members of the public in one forum to promote their core campaigns. For the dwindling numbers of party members, it is an opportunity to meet, drink and share in successes and failures together. If you are a party member, it does feel – for a few days at least – like a community coming together. Bemused town locals wonder why so many strange looking people in suits, carrying printed ‘Total Politics’ bags, have invaded them. It would be a pity if these events were reduced to the one day rallies that spring conferences have become.
Conferences for all the major parties are expensive: more geared to the lobbyist and professional networker than the party member. It is no longer a democratic forum, yet there is something raw about a leader making or breaking their political future with that key note speech, or the young pretender seizing their opportunity to become the ‘conference darling’. For all of their faults, conferences are still massively influential in shaping our politics. Our democracy would be the poorer without them.
Ian Pendlington is a lobbyist, freelance writer and political adviser. You can follow him on Twitter at @ianp01.