Conference needs to change – so split it in two

8th October, 2012 3:47 pm

I’m a Labour Party Annual Conference addict. I’ve been to all except two of them in the 20 years since 1992, and had the honour of chairing sessions this year and last. For me it’s a highlight of the year where I meet friends, debate issues, network and recharge my political batteries.

But just because you enjoy something – even as much as I enjoy conference – it doesn’t necessarily mean you should carry on doing it the same way.

Clearly something is not quite right because there was a small drop in the number of CLPs sending delegates this year, even though this is now paid for by the national party, and before the buzz created by Ed Miliband’s speech turned the week into such a success, the general feel was rather flat and poorly attended.

Mark Ferguson recently went as far as suggesting we should abolish conference – I wouldn’t go that far but I do have a radical suggestion for how we might reform it.

For the next few years we are locked into the current 5-day-long, all-things-to-all-people format because the venues are already booked. A fundamental change to the way we do conference would also require changing the Party rulebook.

But looking into the future I think we need to consider addressing two fundamental flaws with conference:

  1. The length and timing of conference makes it inaccessible. A 5-day event during term time means that many people working in non-political jobs find it very difficult to attend, as do parents of school-age children, and students. This makes it an unrepresentative gathering, mainly attended by political professionals who can go in a work capacity, or people so fanatical they are prepared to take four days of their annual leave to talk politics. The cost of five nights in a hotel is prohibitive even if you can find the time.
  2. Confusion over mutually contradictory functions. Conference has evolved from a historic primary role as the sovereign decision-making body of the Labour Party for internal elections, rule changes and policy. The TV age and a backlash against on-screen internecine warfare in the 1980s mean that we now usually try to present as united a face as possible, rather than hold our fights in public. Increasing amounts of conference time are given over to aspects that play well with an external audience: the Leader’s Q&A, moderated round-tables, guest speakers, which inevitably reduces the time available for ordinary delegates to debate issues. When debates are held, marginal seat parliamentary candidates understandably want to speak so they can get on TV. Some functions have moved to other forums, such as elections now mainly being by One-Member-One-Vote ballot, and the detail of policy making now moving to the National Policy Forum. But understandably delegates who have been elected wanting to go and debate the future direction of the Party get frustrated when they find they are spending much of conference as the audience in a rally or extended party political broadcast.

The suggestion I want to tentatively float is that we could address both those issues, and substantially reduce the cost of conference to the Party coffers, by disaggregating the two functions.

We could consider holding two weekend-long events instead of one 5-day conference.

During the current conference season we would hold a “Labour Party Convention” – a 48 hour rally to showcase Labour to the country and raise activist morale. This would include the Leader’s speech, the Leader’s Q&A, and set-piece speeches by other senior Shadow Cabinet members and senior figures in the wider labour movement. These would be interspersed with videos, profiles of candidates (speeches or videos), celebrity endorsers giving speeches, even entertainment in the form of comedians or big-name live singers and musicians. The feel would be similar to that of the US conventions or the Italian Festa l’Unita. You could even have a large scale gala dinner in the evening – in the US gala dinners are for many thousands of guests, not the few hundred who go to the current conference dinner. The fringe would be much as it is now, but compressed into a shorter time-frame, and commercial visitors and the exhibition would be here too. There would be no formal business to transact, no speeches from the floor, and no votes taken, so any party member who wanted to be on the Convention floor would be able to buy a pass, though CLPs and affiliates would still be encouraged to send people to have a formal presence. The event would be family-friendly with crèche facilities for younger children, and older children being welcome in the hall. As weekends are easier for people to attend and cheaper (one or at most two nights in a hotel), we could expect more people to attend than would be able to go to the current conference format. The event would be cheaper for the party to run: although there are some fixed logistical and production costs, the staff accommodation and venue costs would drop considerably through moving from a 5 to 2 day format.

The other weekend event could be held in the spring and would be the “Labour Party AGM”. Attendance would be limited to voting delegates from CLPs and affiliates, and certain ex-officio categories. It would be held in closed session with no media in the room. Whilst social media means the proceedings could not be kept wholly confidential, they would not be covered live on TV, so a franker debate could be held, as it is at the NPF. Set piece speeches would be shorter and limited to opening and closing debates. We could even innovate by calling alternate floor speakers for and against on each issue!

This event would be the formal sovereign body of the party and deal with all the formal business currently dealt with at conference, and look at policy more thoroughly as well as paying more attention to organisational matters and holding the NEC and leadership to account more than we do at the moment in a more public forum. The closed format without TV coverage would mean there would be minimal production costs (just a sound system, no lighting rig, staging and backdrop etc.) and a basic venue such as Westminster Central Hall or a municipal assembly rooms could be used. Costs incurred could be fully covered by the delegation fees. There would be a smaller fringe consisting mainly of events organised by affiliates and internal party organisations and campaigns. We would start to see more diversity in delegations from CLPs due to the shorter nature of the event not impinging on weekdays.

Maybe this is all a step too far, but conference is already unrecognisable from 30 years ago, so we should at least think about whether there is a different way to do it.

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  • Like it. Yes the set piece talking to the press and country bits (with live TV, razzmattazz etc) don’t fit with the necessary work of internal party debate and reform. The AGM you suggest should certainly be open in the sense of being openly minuted though – just not in the bright lights and on the TV.

  • One reason why our CLP didnt send a delegate this year was because none of the female members wanted to go.

  • One reason why our CLP didnt send a delegate this year was because none of the female members wanted to go.

    • This is a very good point John. While I am committed to gender equality this requirement that we alternate each year between male and female seems almost Stalinist. Statistically it is highly likely that a perfectly gender balanced party might nonetheless have delegates of the same gender two years in a row. It also seems to be a top down imposition that defies the supposed decentralisation of re-founding Labour.

  • Brumanuensis

    I think this is one of the most sensible set of recommendations I’ve read on this topic, so credit to Luke Akehurst where credit’s due. That said, I can foresee political repercussions to holding ‘secret’ meetings on Party business – it might not be logical, but that’s no bar to it being raised by some sections of the press – which will mean that this will have to be very carefully handled. And of course, this should all be subject to consultation beforehand, so that members have a say.

    • postageincluded

      It’s not only that a “secret conference” would sound sinister per se, even if the public could accept the secrecy it would be a PR disaster every year.  Every mild disagreement in the closed room would be a bloody brawl by the time it hit the press. And that closed room would be as leaky as sieve.  It sounds like an utterly disastrous idea to me.

    • postageincluded

      It’s not only that a “secret conference” would sound sinister per se, even if the public could accept the secrecy it would be a PR disaster every year.  Every mild disagreement in the closed room would be a bloody brawl by the time it hit the press. And that closed room would be as leaky as sieve.  It sounds like an utterly disastrous idea to me.

      • The proposed “closed sessions” would be a disaster not only because of the politburo characterisations that would feature in media but, just as importantly, for the membership, who will be unable to access a full account of discussions and decisions. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

        • How would this differ from the NPF and NEC meetings which don’t have the media but aren’t secret because we get reports from our elected representatives. With modern technology it would be reasonably straight-forward to make available the discussions to members through membersnet.
          There is a big difference between secret meetings and not inviting the press.

    • postageincluded

      It’s not only that a “secret conference” would sound sinister per se, even if the public could accept the secrecy it would be a PR disaster every year.  Every mild disagreement in the closed room would be a bloody brawl by the time it hit the press. And that closed room would be as leaky as sieve.  It sounds like an utterly disastrous idea to me.

  • Basically a very good idea.  I used to like the atmosphere of the NPF, although there was pressure there to seek consensus.  because it lasts five days, many people vote with their feet, leaving after Tuesday.  The fringe noticeably declines on Wednesday.  I enjoy it, but many of the delegates are elderly – old gadgeys like me – who enjoy meeting their friends of many years ago.  That is probably because they are the only ones who have the spare time!

  • I like Conference, but I think this suggestion is very good.  It is difficult to be there the whole time unless you are retired like me, and i notice many people leave after Tuesday.

  • Hamish Dewar

    Why does LabourList devote so many articles to the mechanics of the party?
    The big issue today is George Osborne’s outrageous suggestion that workers should sell their rights for a mess of pottage.

    •  And about which we can do bugger all until we are back in government in two and a half years time.

    •  And about which we can do bugger all until we are back in government in two and a half years time.

    •  And about which we can do bugger all until we are back in government in two and a half years time.

    •  And about which we can do bugger all until we are back in government in two and a half years time.

  • Alexwilliamz

    How about going glastonbury. Have it in a big field with different ‘tents’ for different events, stick it in the summer. Alternatively take over a holiday camp for a 4-5 days off season. 

  • I thought that Luke Akehurst was voted off the NEC?

    • Yes I was.  My term of office finished at the end of Conference. Which gives me more time to blog about Labour Party matters.

      • What a shame! Makes me feel guilty for not voting now. Totally agree with your points here Luke and thank you for your hard work and service to the party which can’t be easy to balance with job and family committments.

      • What a shame! Makes me feel guilty for not voting now. Totally agree with your points here Luke and thank you for your hard work and service to the party which can’t be easy to balance with job and family committments.

  • I thought that Luke Akehurst was voted off the NEC?

  • I thought that Luke Akehurst was voted off the NEC?

  • Having just experienced my first conference as a delegate I find myself rather to my surprise in complete agreement with Comrade Akehurst.

    5 (or 6 if you count the Saturday evening reception) days is simply way too long and above all expensive for what is now nothing more than a rally from which real political debate and decision making has been almost entirely stripped.

    A media-free real conference in spring and a rally in autumn are in fact an excellent solution.

    I also think there is an argument for using some of the money that we’d save to have annual regional conferences that are more useful events.

    But how on earth do we get this implemented?

  • Having just experienced my first conference as a delegate I find myself rather to my surprise in complete agreement with Comrade Akehurst.

    5 (or 6 if you count the Saturday evening reception) days is simply way too long and above all expensive for what is now nothing more than a rally from which real political debate and decision making has been almost entirely stripped.

    A media-free real conference in spring and a rally in autumn are in fact an excellent solution.

    I also think there is an argument for using some of the money that we’d save to have annual regional conferences that are more useful events.

    But how on earth do we get this implemented?

  • Having just experienced my first conference as a delegate I find myself rather to my surprise in complete agreement with Comrade Akehurst.

    5 (or 6 if you count the Saturday evening reception) days is simply way too long and above all expensive for what is now nothing more than a rally from which real political debate and decision making has been almost entirely stripped.

    A media-free real conference in spring and a rally in autumn are in fact an excellent solution.

    I also think there is an argument for using some of the money that we’d save to have annual regional conferences that are more useful events.

    But how on earth do we get this implemented?

  • AlanGiles

    Duke Ellington, a notoriously private man once told a journalist who he felt was intruding too much “too much talk stinks up the place”.

    I use this little anecdote, not only to try to get the producers of  my favourite radio programme “Quote Unquote” to use me, but to suggest that in this instance I think Mr Akehurst is quite right.

    Far better (and cheaper for all concerned) to have a 2 day weekend conference, with optional Friday night “reception” , where you can discuss real matters of moment rather than have four or five days of waffle and razzamatazz just to pander to the TV companies.

    Both UKIP (who I don’t much care for) and the Greens (who I do) have weekend conferences, unencumbered by having to put on a show for TV, also of course, many learned associations, guilds etc manage to cope perfectly well with an annual weekend AGM and whatnot.

    Leave them wanting more is never a bad idea

  • Steve_Cohen

    Luke Akehurst obviously lives in the South East, if not London centric, view that public transport works wonderully. And why wouldn’t he given the amount of money therest of us invest in London Transport, Cross Rail etc – but that’s another story.

    I can give him another 20 years, having attended my firstConference in 1973 and can confirm it wasn’t what it was – but then it never was.

    This year Conference started early on Sunday afternoon and finished early Thursday morning, to allow those who doon’t live on direct lines to and from Manchester to travel at a  reasonable time.

    If it were a two day conference travelling time would effectively reduce it to 24 hours and very little time for the fringe events and break out sessions which have become more important over the years.

    25% of the mebership may live in or around London and that means 75% do not.

  • There would be no cost saving for delegates or visitors if conference if split was split in  two. You would still need the same number of hotel nights and it would just mean those hotel nights would be more spread out. This move would likely cost more because you would have to double up on the travel cost as well. Whats more it could be very bad for Labour and it could lose many visitors and also commercial companies who hold a stand or reception and who unwilling to make two separate visits. 

    The section that had the leaders speech would still be well attended but as for the other section it would struggle to attract numbers and splitting the event would also greatly change the feel and importance and in my view would do nothing to help Labour get some of their big messages across to the public and medial. At present the 5 days work and it generates plenty of interest for Labour’s messages and that has to take center stage.

    Its also not just an issue about delegates it also how Labour Conference boosts the economy where it is held. Labour Conference generates some £20 million to whatever location its held and that an important aspect which should not be overlooked. This boost means more city’s are investing in conference facilities and Jobs. You only have to look at Liverpool for an example of the thinking that went into creating facilities to compete against other city’s. A two and a half day conference would have less impact on the economy and would not be as big as an incentive for many reasons.

    Having two events would also mean more cost to Labour for printing alone and then there is the issues of how spaced out the events would be. The next weekend or separated by winter summer. Yet then would it not just become the spring conference? An what of regional conference would they have to shift their allotted timings?

    To split Conference would be to undermine its importance and there would be no major advancement in doing so. Its the largest political Conference in Europe and we should be proud of that and celebrate it’s success.

    When it comes to poor attendance the reasons are seldom based on cost but more of a malaise within a fair few CLP who opt out completely or do little to nothing to encourage people to attend. Sending a delegate to Conference should be compulsory for all CLPs. Given the funds are now there to afford at least one delegate there are no excuses not to. Its not a case that people are not interested or cannot be found it just in CLPs that do not engage seldom ever ask members outside of those who go to meetings. Its more of an attitude problem then a logistics one and one that should not be aloud. 

    CLPs should have more pride about sending delegates and should not be able to ignore this yearly event and should be written in the rules. 
    There are always more that can be done to make it easier to attend, but hotels will always be costly and so will travel. But that cost should no determine how the event is structure or works. We have to remember that this is the one time that the country hears Labours plans without it being spun always by the press and media as it goes out live. It sets the tone for the coming elections and sets out a clear direction. You would not get that with two separate events and the messages from both events would have to be different and that is not how to create firm messages the public hear and for delegates to take back to their CLPs. 

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