As I gathered the tinder wood this morning for the heretical Mark Ferguson, premised namely upon his suggestion that conference should be scrapped, I stopped and paused from my task. Why should annual party conference continue ad infinitum? It has been the flagship event on the British political calendar since our party forbearers first met in February 1900. We have, after all, shelved spring conference. This was done under the auspices of smaller “seminars and consultations” to be held across the country, with podcasts, blogs and online engagement used to signify a new “interactive party”. Oh really. It categorically was not, of course, a simple money-saving exercise. The then General Secretary Peter Watt declared he was “excited” about the new proposals. Indeed, m’learned Uncut colleague Peter has argued once again this year that party conference does indeed need to be scrapped. What, then, for the future of party conference in Brighton 2013 and beyond?
As politicians, lobbyists and journalists – and the odd party member – clamber aboard the train to their annual conference earlier this year, not everyone will be bowled over with enthusiasm for the weeks ahead. The modern party conference contains little of what occurred in its heyday. Long gone are the days when 5.4 million voted to pass the ‘Industry and Society’ policy document at the Labour party conference of 1957. The democratic process has long been stripped from the body of conference, with the debating hall left as a moribund afterthought. The modern party conference contains much that should not be mourned and, even if one did regret their passing, they are not coming back.
My first conference was in Manchester 2008. I was a wide-eyed delegate from the affluent, rural and very conservative patch of Stratford on Avon. But I loved the sense of being part of a family: miners from Sunderland; trade unionists from Glasgow; factory workers from Birmingham; councillors from the West Country – you could strike up a conversation with anyone. Our one unifying bond was the Labour party. Like families at Christmas we might quarrel, but we remain family.
There is also a mood to be sensed, arguments to be had, talent to be spotted, and networking to be done. These things matter and one comes away from the conference better informed than if one stayed away. For some our most senior politicians, it is their annual moment to brush up against real life, which is invaluable in itself. And for many an ambitious young man, it is a chance to be dressed in a crisp new suit, white shirt, with Blackberry endlessly pinned to their ear running, never walking, to their next ‘very important’ event.
If you spot me in Manchester I will indeed be wearing a suit. Though this is not for any desire to be the next Malcolm Tucker, moreover that, in my official capacity as one of those dubious lobbyists you occasionally read about, I’ll be shepherding a multitude of clients around the conference arena. The corporatisation of conference is something to be largely lamented, but it does dismiss a vital point; many of the clients I will be herding in my area of ‘expertise’ – property – will actively contribute to the next Labour party manifesto. Far from the stage-managed conference fall, the fiercest and best of debates are to be had on the sprawling conference fringe.
Stand in the bar at midnight on the last evening, look across the bar and you’ll get a pretty good idea of whether you’re looking at the party that will form the next government. Annual conference is a walking, talking mass focus group. Of course, reform is a must. It is too expensive, too corporate, too secluded, too irrelevant and far too long. If these issues and many more beside aren’t resolved, then we may well need to ask why we need the dismal hardy perennial of the party conference. But, until then, see you in Manchester.