John Harris

Journalist & Author

Time to put the party back into conference season

The annual political gathering has never been more lucrative – or more alienating to the public at large. Is it time to find an alternative to all this corporate boredom?

Nine days ago, on the very muted first day of the Labour party conference, I met Dilys Fletcher MBE, a veteran Labour councillor from Oldham. “This is the quietest, most tame conference start I have ever seen in my life,” she said, and she didn’t seem to be exaggerating. She was particularly frustrated with the scores of pallid-looking young men in ill-fitting suits who were gathered around us in small clumps, staring at the regulation TV screens. “I feel like saying to them: this is not an educational exercise,” she raged. “You’ve not come here to bloody network. You should come here to say to Ed: ‘Get some balls.’”

The event may have flared into life two days later when the younger Miliband made his big speech, but the feeling of borderline tedium lingered. The same applied to the Lib Dems’ gathering in Brighton, a four-day demonstration of how to avert your eyes from an existential crisis by distractedly muddling through. Two weeks on, I’m writing this piece from the press bunker at the Conservative conference in Birmingham: it’s more lively than the other parties’ bunfights, but only just.

As now happens at all the party conferences, most of the people here seem to be either political aides, lobbyists, aspiring MPs or the poor souls who have to staff the exhibition stands. The constant soundtrack is the low hum of politics-speak: “renewal”, “engagement”, the obligatory tributes to the Olympics. The whole thing is happening under the unspeakably lame slogan “Britain can deliver”. As one wag joked yesterday, deliver what? Pizzas?

Every year, through the opening weeks of autumn, the same thing happens. Politicians continue to vent their angst about the public’s lack of interest in what they do. Post-expenses, polls show that Westminster is held in alarmingly low esteem. Yet while they fret about what’s happening to our democracy, the parties’ response is to spend millions on annual events that symbolise everything that has gone wrong. Think about it from the point of view of the citizens of Brighton, Manchester or Birmingham: one of the parties arrives in your city, wraps itself in an impenetrable security cordon that means you have to walk a different way to work, attracts thousands of people who seem very strange indeed, encourages them to lord it around your bars and restaurants, and then promptly disappears. This is not, perhaps, the greatest recipe for the renaissance of politics.

This is an era when people only need the slightest pretext to gather together in large numbers (witness festival season, or the massed response to the Olympics). But even the parties’ remaining activists are turned off. Across the board, membership is only a fraction of what it once was: from respective figures of around three million and one million 50 years ago, Conservative and Labour membership is down to around 177,000 and 194,000; the Lib Dems are at 50,000, down from 100,000 20 years ago. Some of those who dutifully turn up to local meetings and stuff envelopes still come to conference, but in ever-decreasing numbers. At last year’s Tory conference, there were noticeable empty seats, even for David Cameron’s speech, and small wonder: a survey by the activist website ConservativeHome found that since the party now favours big cities rather than seaside resorts, the cost of attendance to the average delegate comes in at a headache-inducing £722.

Yet the machine grinds on. In a recent edition of PR week, a survey of 17 “public affairs agencies” – lobbying firms, to you and me – found that although 64% of their people expected to see fewer activists and MPs at this year’s conferences, 70% expected the numbers of “public affairs practitioners” to either remain stable, or grow. For as long as they will stump up for a pass, and companies and charities still see the worth of paying for a stand, the parties will presumably leave things pretty much as they are. There is, after all, money in all the corporatised boredom: according to a recent report in The Times, the Tories turned a profit of £1,442,000 from last year’s conference, four times the figure they managed five years ago, and Labour sources say that their numbers “mirrored the trend”. In an age when the big parties constantly fret about money, that’s very significant.

But how can you have a mass conversation about anything important in a lobbyists’ version of the Ideal Home exhibition? For all politicians’ talk about “reaching out” and connecting with the world beyond Westminster, metaphorical light years separate the public and often Sovietesque conference proceedings. Beyond the hyped-up leader’s speech, is there anything to justify all that effort and expense, besides a bit of short-lived PR and the chance to refill the parties’ bank accounts?

Just before I set off for Birmingham, I had a long conversation with a senior figure in the Labour party, who said he found annual conference “life-denying”. From the weird food, through the absence of natural light, to the droves of what he calls “pasty boys” (pasty as in pale, not the Cornish snack), he agreed that everything about the conference ritual symbolises a democracy in dire need of repair. And there were, he assured me, simple enough ways of drastically changing what happens.

First, for a charge of £10 or so, the public should be let in. “You’re supposed to be embedding things in the community, and all that – so why not tear down the fence, and let people come and see you?” he said. Rather than the deadening speeches from the platform and the staid rigmarole of the conference fringe, the running order should feel more like a political book festival, based on big ideas, and featuring plenty of non-politicos: the appearance at this year’s Labour conference of the American philosopher Michael Sandel was a start, but a very modest one.

Those who hanker after a boost to party democracy, he said, shouldn’t pin their hopes on the conference: in the modern age, giving party members a meaningful voice can be an ongoing process, rather than five days of waving cards in the air and proposing emergency motions. But there was a strong argument for an annual session devoted to party business and rules, and thanks to fixed parliaments, a once-every-five-years event focused on a huge debate about the party’s election manifesto and its fundamental principles. In between all that, he told me, there are endless possibilities: speakers from abroad, musical events in the evening – anything that might break through the current sense of a couple of thousand people talking largely to themselves. “The next one will be better,” he assured me, though he acknowledged that the people who can conceive of no other kind of conference will offer plenty of resistance.

As I packed my case and headed for Birmingham with a quiet dread, I considered some recent thoughts from Channel 4’s Jon Snow: “News is the occurrence of the unexpected. [But] very little ‘unexpected’ is permitted in the set-piece plenary moments of any party conference these days. The unexpected, if it occurs, occurs on the fringe. Here there are flashes of passion. But when the hands go up for questions, the arms, more often than not, belong to NGOs and thinktanks. So how does all this go down in the wider world? Have the conferences become mere shop windows? If they have, where is the real debate? Is there one?” The answer, until these increasingly pointless bunfights are dramatically reinvented, will be a thundering no. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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