Is it time to abolish party conference?

29th August, 2012 7:00 am

What is Labour Party conference for? As thousands book their hotels and receive their passes ahead of the yearly jamboree (this time in Manchester) it seems like a fair time to ask. And it’s not a question that’s easy to answer.

Let’s start with what conference is not. It’s not a democratic decision making body. That may well be the principle, according to the Labour Party rule book, but anyone who has been to a party conference in the last twenty years will tell you that’s nonsense. Very little is voted on, and when it is, it’s the sort of ludicrous “faux democracy” we saw last year with Refounding Labour where not a single speech was made against the plans, despite there being sizeable criticism of the reforms. Embarrassing doesn’t even begin to describe it. Neither does phoney, or stitch up, or ludicrous. We may need to invent a new word…

Thankfully nobody noticed, despite half of the British political press being there. Because party conferences are – by and large – boring to the outside observer, with the possible exception of gossip, tittle tattle and any huge bust ups (which fortunately the Labour Party seeks to provide as regular as clockwork).

It’s only then that the country really pays attention.

The exception to this of course is the leader’s speech, which if we’re honest is what the whole conference shebang is focused around these days – it’s the centrepiece of the event, many people go home afterwards and it’s the only (food and alcohol free) event that draws substantial queues.

Conference, to all intents and purposes, is about the leader’s speech.

And fair enough – its a guaranteed 40 minutes to an hour of dedicated air time for your party and your vision, and barring an earthquake or something similar, it’s a day when you’re certain to get the newspaper front pages and the top story on the news.

It’s a shame then, that so many leader’s speeches are so full of “filler” (either the vacuous twaddle or pointless policy varieties), rather than glorious visions of the peaks yet to be climbed. I can’t remember anything David Cameron said last year (but I do remember the empty seats). I do remember Ed Miliband’s prescient “predators and producers” shtick, if little else, but what really sticks in the mind is the booing of Blair. Even at these great occasions, images are what matters most, and even the most dedicated political observer will remember little if anything afterwards. I certainly never do, it seems to fall out of my head as soon as I enter [insert name of city] station to head home, exhausted.

The other reason why conferences are important for political parties is one few will disclose voluntarily – but it’s the key reason why they are so long and so large. They’re money spinners. All sorts of lobbyists from all sorts of companies pay all sorts of money for stalls and passes and fringe events and sponsorship. They are the people that, in many ways, allow the whole thing to happen, and boost the party coffers. Except when you’re in opposition it’s harder to attract that kind of funding, due to your irrelevance. I can’t be the only one who finds the exhibition area dwindling as the years go by. And we’re obviously not the only ones – the Tories are making their SpAds share a room. The indignity eh? And they should e rolling in it…

So if conference isn’t really about democracy, great speeches or money (although it is still about all of these things of course), then what is it about? And if the answer is nothing, is it time to bite the bullet and abolish (or at least scale down) conference?

I love party conference – perhaps a little too much. It’s the only time when it feels like politics is happening in real time and the party comes together in one place. You can get the pulse of the party at conference and even on occasion detect the smell of cordite in the air. Revolts and revolutions don’t tend to climax at conference, but it is usually where they begin.

But perhaps that’s not enough to justify it. Perhaps conference, as we currently conceive it, has had its day. Speeches that don’t really work, an event no-one is watching, is expensive to run and hosts (at best) sham democracy.

Perhaps it’s time for conference to go.

That’s heretical I know. And you can take it up with me in person in the first week of October in Manchester – because as long as conference is there, I will be too.

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