Party Conference Utopia

Miliband

James Evans discusses the advantages of (and issues with) staging party conferences.

Summer has been brought to an abrupt end. First came the Syria vote. Now the parliamentary hiatus known as ‘conference season’ is once again in full swing. Media attention will inevitably be focused on the various party conference venues in an orderly procession, and everyone will get their opportunity (should they wish it) to shout at the television set in response to a popular or unpopular announcement.

Whilst much is made of the ‘out-of-town’ locations of the conferences, the security arrangements and the ‘conference world’ bubble are such that the whole experience feels somewhat divorced from the locality – let alone the reality – of where everything takes place. Presumably, this is at least in part due to the Brighton Bombing back in 1984: the moment that the IRA attempted to assassinate Margaret Thatcher. The main speeches, which get broadcast by national media, are very carefully choreographed, and little is gained from being there as opposed to watching them live on a screen. That’s not to say that the speeches never matter; for example, a speech by David Cameron in 2007 is credited by some with dissuading Gordon Brown from calling an early General Election.

…the security arrangements and the ‘conference world’ bubble are such that the whole experience feels somewhat divorced from the locality – let alone the reality – of where everything takes place.

Speeches can be listened to from anywhere, but as football fans and regular concert-goers know, ‘atmosphere’ can only effectively be created and experienced when you are present at the event. Sadly, being at a football match or a pop concert is very different to being at a political conference. When watching a match that could go either way, football fans sense how much their support matters to the outcome. Even at pop concerts, performers will sometimes respond to the audience: falling silent for a crowd rendition of the chorus line, for example. Unfortunately, politicians don’t do ‘a capella’ renditions of ‘Radio Gaga’, and hecklers are prominent either by their headlines or by their absence.

The panacea for political activists at a party conference is to feel that they have a chance to influence party policy. It is often remarked that the Liberal Democrat conference does indeed allow members to vote on some major policy ideas. But conferences are not generally an effective place to formulate party policy. There simply isn’t time to formulate or showcase policies when confronted with the overwhelmingly wide range of political responsibilities. Whilst an activist can reinforce their sense of place within a party by asking the odd question and putting across their view on a particular issue, it is easy to feel that new thinking is drowned out in the general twitter…

Smaller-scale local conferences are not the ideal environment for policy formation either. I recently attended my local ‘Conservative Renewal’ conference in Windsor. During one of the ‘break-out’ sessions, in which we were discussing Arts Policy, I made a point about the attitude of arts funders, which I said should be more focused on supporting grassroots organisations rather than expensive professional projects. This observation was re-interpreted as a suggestion that funding responsibilities for the arts should be devolved to local bodies such as councils. Whilst there may be a lot of merit in this suggestion, it wasn’t the point that I was making! Nor was it the only point that I wanted to make, but of course our time had run out before I got another chance to speak.

The real purpose of national party conferences is political positioning. The Liberal Democrats have started to set out their stall for the next General Election; unsurprisingly, it seems that neither an outright win for Labour nor for the Conservatives would, in Mr Clegg’s opinion, bring a successful outcome for the general public. Expect the same kind of thing, mutatis mutandi, from the other two main parties. But there will be positive messages too. I know this because, like good movie publicists, politicians are getting their interviews and articles in front of me in advance of them saying the same things at the big event.

The Local Government Association’s preview of the major conferences contained a mardi gras parade of politicians plugging their parties’ localism agendas. It intrigues me how ‘localism’ – like ‘fairness’ or ‘equality’ – has become one of those safe words that all parties support, but all approach differently. Hilary Benn, the Shadow Communities Secretary wants a New English Deal involving a ‘fundamental shift in power from Whitehall to communities’. Eric Pickles’ message is about his department’s spending reductions, the ‘real power’ that has been given to councils, and the rewards and incentives for delivering improvements in the local community such as ‘creating jobs, building houses and transforming local services’. Don Foster champions the ‘real difference to people’s lives’ being made by the Localism Act of 2011.

It intrigues me how ‘localism’ – like ‘fairness’ or ‘equality’ – has become one of those safe words that all parties support, but all approach differently.

Reading these articles alongside each other has subjected me to a kind of inter-conference ‘white noise’. Although the approaches of the parties appear to differ, it’s not clear what they would actually DO differently. In short, a comparison of the articles really takes us nowhere. For the time-being, ‘localism’ like so many contested political terms, is consigned to ‘conference utopia’.

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