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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  • Perhaps just reduce it to 3 days Friday to Sunday & call it Labour (or what ever party) Annual Outing to … ! 

  • A good article, and thought-provoking.

    At risk of jeopardising my commenting rights, however, surely the author realises the same question can be asked of Labourlist: a place where startlingly few articles attempt to “set” the agenda and trust debate to take place at this e-grassroots level*; thus normally articles appear to me to typically fall into one of three categories:
    – look at what the evil/stupid/incompetent tories did now- why someone/thing who crticises the government are right- why the PLP’s latest decision is right and everyone who disagrees is wrong*ironically, perhaps, this article is an honourable exception, though I personally rate Rob Marchant’s often provocative pieces for the same reason.While clearly there is room for such “puff” articles, and it is right to have them in the portfolio, I believe they set the tone of the debate as a result, and perhaps explains why they often develop into petty left vs right slanging matches.I would be far more interested in “deeper” pieces, inviting real debate, and with real involvement by MPs (who don’t then just write pieces in order to politically position themselves and never return).There are plenty of topics available:- what is the future of the NHS: even Doctors I know suggest it needs fundamental reform, and even to refocus on certain key services (e.g. A&E, maternity, cancer)- what to do about housing: bulldoze the greenbelt? make more concerted efforts to relocate business to the North?  I still haven’t seen an article, for example, about the coalition suggestion to sell mansions to build affordable housing, as an example of an area where the PLP do not appear to have come to a consensus view – surely LL’s role is nothing if not to influence that debate with measured and sensible discussion here?

    The bottom-line for me is this: opposition’s don’t traditionally “win” elections, and I feel as if the party has an active desire to suppress debate (perhaps to preserve unity) while the coalition tear themselves apart.  To me that is timid, and depressing.  I want to see active, constructive opposition – floating completely new ideas; setting the agenda; getting people talking down the pub; and so on.

    That should be the real ambition of both Labourlist and Conference.

  • postageincluded

    Ah, but if the Tories and LibDems carry on having a conference they’ll be setting the news agenda in late summer and we’ll be out of the loop. We can’t really do it unilaterally. How about some tripartite talks, they always work well….

    • Daniel Henry

      Why would the Lib Dems abolish conference?
      They get to submit, debate motions and ultimately decide party policy.

      • postageincluded

        Wow, your irony detector must really be on the blink.

  • Daniel Speight

    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

    So maybe it’s time to return to some of those principles. What we have seen over recent years is a centrally stage-managed seaside meeting which Gerry Healy would have been proud to have arranged.

    In fact more Stalinist than social democrat. The standing ovation for Mandelson a couple of years back was almost North Korean and the video montage shown behind Harman was very Orwellian.

  • mouthOfTheUmber

    I read a comment, possibly in responce to another of your postings, that said there should be a LP Convention. I would add that either H/O or R/Os should then arrange far more Policy Forums, possibly on a sub-regional basis.
    People do not become members to knock on doors or make phone calls, they join because they have an opinon on how the country &/or local authority should be run and wish to express and dicsuss that view point with like minded individuals. They then realise that to get those views implimented they need to campaign to get a representative voice elected. They then realise they need more people to help campaign and funds to buy resources.
    The LP, for a long time, has been trying to put the ‘cart before the horse’ for a long time.

  • Apologies for seeming dense but I hope this is satirical. Only a fool would suggest the solution to a democratic deficit but would be abolition rather than democratisation. Besides, conferences (for all parties) providing rallying points and a chance to create internal bonds that online-/local-only activism cannot foster. Without a collective gathering of its own, Labour (moreso than usual) cannot claim to be a collectivist party.

    • rekrab

      I think that is the problem Josiah, collectivism in the labour party is dead and at a time when so much has to be said, nothing much is being said at all about the direction the labour should be taking.Wider democracy? seems like a David Miliband call for community activism? in other words “the big society” or the voluntary movement, where the something for nothing nonsense is replaced for the something for nothing return.Is today’s labour party shadow cabinet so bad, it’s frightened to air it’s self on national TV? 

  • PeterBarnard

    Although Conference may be basically ineffective, there are members in CLPs up and down the country who put in steady work over the years (some even put in exceptional work) and a chance to go to Conference at the CLP’s expense to see prominent Labour people “in the flesh,” and speak to some of them, is something in the way of a reward for that work. The effort is, after all, voluntary.

    From that viewpoint, I would hesitate to withdraw Conference from the annual calendar.

  • Yes, by all means abolish the party conference if you want  to see Labour’s  leadership  depicted by the lickspittle Tory hacks and capitalist media lackeys as being completely out of touch with its grass roots.

    Much better to take the conference back to the days when the opinions of delegates and Trades Unionists really counted for something.

  • Perhaps Michael you are right just to reduce it to three days. The Co-op Party and I will admit we are no where as large as Labour or the Tories, but we must be getting close to the new reduced sized Lib Dems. We hold our annual conference starting Friday afternoon, and finish it on Sunday afternoon. In that time we will have motions to debate on the floor, have Shadow minister come and address us, and report back from The Welsh assembly, The Scottish Parliament. Plus being a Industrial and Provident Society we will have our AGM. And I will add Conference Arrangements Committee, and the NEC do not always get their own way, when it comes to voting on motions.

  • rekrab

     I’d agree with most of what’s been said and  particularly, it’s all about what the leader of the party has to say to all those party hacks with nice suits in the front row but behind the front row there are many local representatives looking to be enthused and hoping for a message to take back to their residents.Is hope gone? is there no alternative? are we all consigned to the ideals that for every pound spent there has to be a pound in place? and what does a balanced budget really mean for the future of millions?

    Hearsay, possibilities, potentials and what if’s? “We may need to invent a new word” We may need to invent a new world and what if “Mars” is rich in minerals, oil, gold, silver? and what if we need to create that new energy and what if we need to change a broken economy to a new world wide economy based on what we can do and what we to do it with rather than the weight of bank accounts?    

  • I thought it was so people on Twitter could update their avatars with screengrabs of themselves on the telly?

    • markfergusonuk

      This may be the best explanation yet…

    • John_Dore

      Or standing next to Ed Miliband as loyal lemmings.

  • markfergusonuk

    My argument is that Labour needs more democracy, but conference is an outdated, failed way of achieving that…

    • LembitOpiksLovechild

       Conference is only an outdated failed proposition because of the way it has been hijacked, stage managed and manipulated over recent years. If conference were restored to what it was previously then it would be valuable and a hell ofa lot more interesting. . It almost suggests that the parts bosses are afraid of democracy. Surely not

    • Fair enough – but what would your up-to-date and successful way of achieving more democracy (and why ‘more ‘ rather than just ‘democracy’ which seems to me to be an either/or rather than more/less concept) actually be?

      While in theory one could have a perpetual rolling policy conference conducted entirely online anybody who actually has to work with our crap membership data and systems would be extremely sceptical about this

      And even if some supertechie could deliver a system it would still just privilege digitally hyperactive folk like us who spend way too much time doing precisely what we are doing here and now when we could be out knocking on doors and delivering leaflets to real people who might actually change their vote.

      Delegate conferences work because hundreds of thousands of members cannot all have an equal say in one place and one time – but divide them up into thousands of branches and hundreds of CLPs and you can have meaningful discussions and mandate delegates to vote accordingly.

      Yes it is slow, messy, boring and open to manifold abuses – but that is what democracy is.

  • ColinAdkins

    For aspirant MPs to prance and preen.

    For people like me to crash as many socials as I can. However it is many years since I have gone and I believe the number of trade union ‘dos’ have been scaled back both in generosity and number due to mergers. Most successful blag was to get into the Mirror do under Maxwell. I now feel guilty as this was probably funded through  pension fund money including my Uncle Terry ‘swho worked on the Sporting Life.

    I remember the entertainment unions lived up to their names and put on a most splendid bash or was that the TUC (hic)? At one I remember Ian Gibson soon to become a MP laying into John Edmonds (GS of the GMB) over nuclear power. I didn’t agree with Ian then or now but it was great fun. The Workers Party of Ireland also had some great gatherings.

    There was undoubtedly great moments. Kinnock’s Mili speech. I was then purging Labour Students of members of the RSL. Mandela. Clinton. And love him or loathe him Blair could do a good turn. But I guess that skill came with experience which I hope Ed is going to get.

  • I, for one, really want to hear the Green Party’s opinion on the issue of internal Labour Party democracy.

    • John_Dore

      and Progress too.

  • Let’s be honest, the whole process involving shutting Parliament down for 4 weeks whilst Westminster decamps to the provinces is anathema to the taxpayer. Whether or not Parliament ‘really’ achieves anything, the voters now expect their paid representatives to be there in committees, in the house being seen to be working in their interest. If political parties want to hold fund raising events, why not hold them from Friday lunchtime to Sunday – see how popular they are then

  • Dear Mark, I appreciate that editor’s decision is final but would be grateful to understand which aspect of my attempted post this morning was in breach of the rules, since I cannot immediately see where I may have broken them, and since it did represent a considerable effort of composition I am therefore naturally somewhat disappointed to see it amount to nothing.  Appreciating you are busy, I wonder if perhaps you would be kind enough to briefly elaborate so that I can avoid such pitfalls in future – perhaps to my email address which I presume you can see as administrator?

  • Conference is also an opportunity for those from smaller branches, especially in the Tory heartlands, to speak with like minded colleagues and gain that sense of community larger CLPs take for granted. 

    I agree would like to see a bit more democracy.  I had a branch motion get all the way to conference about 9 years ago – with the radical notion that the Chair of Young Labour be elected by Young Labour Members.  Alas it was kicked to the kerb 🙁

  • Adam Spencer

    The best bit about conference is the fringe. It is where the real intellectual life of the party can be found. Last time I  was able to attend there were great, thought provoking sessions put on by Compass, Fabians and Progress that were so much better than the dreariness of what was going on in the hall. You are right that conference is now no longer a decision making body; so let’s change that and have proper debates about NPF documents with item by item decision making, not take it or leave it.

  • Brumanuensis

    I think Peter Watt had a point* when he suggested that the leader’s speech ought to be scrapped, as oratory isn’t really Ed’s forte. His suggestion was an extended Q&A. I would prefer, alongside that sort of event, not one leader’s speech, but 2-3. At the moment, the leader’s speech is too wide-ranging, which means its almost impossible to make it memorable – as Mark points out, quite rightly, Ed’s ‘producers and predators’ speech is famous only for that line. The fact it’s not on the final day also makes the rest of the conference an anti-climax.

    My proposal for a revamped structure would be for Ed to give a set of speeches, each no longer than 30 minutes or so, on a varying range of topics. For example:

    -A speech on the opening day of the conference, focussing on Party matters and reform of the Party, followed by an extended Q&A session, with genuinely spontaneous questions from the audience.

    -A speech on the economy, on one of the following days (as the economy is the most important topic of the moment).

    -A sort of ‘leader’s sermon’, on the final day, on a reasonably-tightly drawn theme of particular interest to Ed, i.e. the environment, public ethics, crime, etc.

    This would ensure that rather than the flabby, over-extended ‘touch-all-the-bases’ speech we get currently, Ed could rely on a naturally-occurring theme, rather than trying to tie together lots of disparate elements.

    Some other ideas:

    -Some people are suggesting that conference should be abbreviated. I think it should be lengthened, but with fewer people invited. At the moment, the sheer volume of people inhibits discussion, because the conference body is too disparate to unite for the purposes of a concentrated debate, as opposed to everyone wandering off and doing their own thing at some fringe event.

    -Conference should have most of its decision-making powers restored.

    -The ridiculous restrictions on what motions can and cannot be discussed, should be largely abolished.

    -Conference should not be a social get-together; it should be a working event. As part of this change, ban alcohol. If people are spending too much time drinking, they’re no use to the Party.

    -Conference should become a scrutinising body. More time should be devoted to discussion of reports by the Party executive and all members of the Shadow Cabinet should be subjected to public questioning on their performance and proposals.

    -Conference should become less deferential. Remember when Healey was vigorously heckled at the 1976 Party Conference? I don’t think I would have heckled him, but we need to become less of a ‘happy-clappy’ Party and be prepared to show a bit more dissent if a senior figure says something we don’t like. We’re supposed to be an egalitarian Party, not a deferential one.

    *I know. Jesus Christ.

    • ReefKnot

      You make it sound important..

  • In reality, isn’t it a party rally , rather than a policy-making conference?

  • Er – so why not unsham the democracy?

    Nobody accused conference of being irrelevant in the 1970s because amidst all the fixing and block votes it made political decisions that had real consequences for the country.

    Look at the most famous quotes from Labour politicians – before Kinnock and Blairs’ emasculation of conference (not at all an exaggerated analogy as eunuchs it appears can still so to speak go through the motions – its just that all their efforts can bear no fruit) these were generally made at that podium.

    White heat of the technological revolution, fight, fight, fight to save the party I love, not go naked into the conference chamber  – all IIRC delivered at conference.

    Make Ed actually fight for a policy – even one which many of us hate – and maybe we and the electorate will see the real passion and the real eloquence which I believe he is capable of. 

    The received wisdom is that the voters reject divided parties but I can see relatively little evidence of that historically – a perpetually squabbling Labour won 4 out of 6 elections between 1964 and 1979, a Tory party which had taken its fratricidal strife to the point of assassinating their most successful modern leader still won in 1992 and acres of newsprint about the Brown-Blair feud did not stop Labour coasting to three successive victories under them…..

    It’s only when intra-party divisions get to the point of true betrayal and give birth to new parties: the traitors of the SDP, Ramsay MacDonald’s National Government , Lloyd George vs Asquith, protectionists vs free traders, unionists vs home rulers, Peelites vs Protectionists, Old vs New Whigs etc, that there are real and lasting electoral consequences.

  • markfergusonuk


    Always good to have feedback on LabourList so thanks for this. I like to think we provide a broad range of content and views on the site, so I’m disappointed to hear you don’t think that’s the case – although we’re always striving to improve what we do.


    • Mark, thanks for the reply: it is certainly no judgement on the excellent work you are doing, and my argument is presented provocatively, but in summary I’d be delighted if there were more “interactive” and deep discussions.

  • markfergusonuk

    Hi David – nothing of the sort, just afraid it takes a little while to moderate comments and today has been a busy day.


    • Thanks Mark, and apologies – I was under the mistaken impression that a number of comments had already been approved so feared the worst…

  • Brumanuensis

    “At risk of jeopardising my commenting rights, however, surely the author realises the same question can be asked of Labourlist: a place where startlingly few articles attempt to “set” the agenda and trust debate to take place at this e-grassroots level*; thus normally articles appear to me to typically fall into one of three categories”

    If that’s what you’re after, I hear Comment is Free is a good place to go.

    But more seriously, this is a Labour membership website. If you want those sorts of policy discussions, the IPPR or the Fabians are the place to go. Most of what we do here is let off steam. I barely talk about politics with my friends, so really LabourList is my only chance to regularly interact with other Labour Party members, meaning we tend to spend a lot of time sounding off about the government. It’s the same at Lib Dem Voice or Conservative Home.


    “I still haven’t seen an article, for example, about the coalition suggestion to sell mansions to build affordable housing”.

    Well, that wasn’t the coalition, that was the Centre for Policy Studies. And that wasn’t what they proposed in any case.

    • Brum are you suggesting that Labour membership shouldn’t have any say in policy discussions except via membership of smaller self-interested groups; and that LL is primarily a place for Labour membership to have a cosy knees up and chatter about the weather?  Suffice to say I disagree pretty vehemently.

      Fair point about the housing though.

  • Brumanuensis


    I’m all in favour of the membership having a say over policy discussions, but I don’t think LabourList is mainly designed for that purpose – Mark may well disagree here. I think most of the more interesting discussions take place over at the places I mentioned. I agree there is a fair amount of knocking copy published here – no offence intended to the editors, they can only publish what they get – and if I weren’t such a lazy bugger, I might have a go myself. But I’m a great believer in the virtues of carping from the sidelines.

    LabourList is, essentially, a reactive website. Most of what it publishes are responses to external events, rather than long-term policy perspectives. Progress is rather better at that sort of thing, as are LeftFootForward. Of course, ceteris paribus, it would be nice to have more of that ilk here, but I LabourList is primarily a place for Party members to squabble amiably and sometimes less-than-amiably, with each other. I have been tempted to submit articles in the past, but I don’t think I’d add anything to the usual contributors.

    • rekrab

      I remember the build to the 1997 election, on the economic question, Blair often quoted the need to gain office and see what the books were like, I also remember Blair describing the future Scottish parliament as nothing other than a parish council, all in all people weren’t to sure where Blair was leading them, of course had they been fully aware, Blair may never have got any further.The table is bare and the crowd are screaming for some service, lets not do another new labour closed door act, let us at least have the decency to voice our intentions and let the public decide.

      How many will be waiting with baited breath for the shadow  work and pensions minister to address conference?

  • Brumanuensis

    Why shouldn’t it be?

  • ThomasCartwright

    Brumanuensis below has got near the mark.  His “longer and fewer” policy body has already developed(not enough yet), and it is called the Policy Forum (National, Regional Local).  Conference has always suffered from the fatuous yearning to imitate the proceedings of parliament, in which major social divisions have been reflected and refracted, and debate has been informed by a relatively well-informed government bureaucracy, the House of Commons library and so on. By contrast, conference debates are characterized by ignorance of fact, and fatuous “principle”-mongering. The ‘sovereignty’ of conference has also always lacked the constitutional urgency of the need to form a government, found in parliament, which itself is  now little better than an electoral college. I love Conference, and have spent 35 years leafleting outside and agitating within. This is no argument in its favour! “Go” as Cromwell put it…..!!!

  • Again with the ‘bit more democracy’ – that’s SO going to get us up on the barricades.

  • I’d also argue that the emasculation of conference can also be placed in a much wider context of the deskilling and deprofessionalisation endemic to late capitalism and which writers from Harry Bravermann to Richard Sennett have explored.

    Conference and the whole process by which delegates and motions were generated from the branches up was actually a profoundly educational one for everyone involved and which produced generations of national and local politicians who knew that to get things done they had to convince large numbers of very diverse people at public events.

    The emasculation of conference was part of a general managerialisation of all our institutions which replaced open leadership and consensus-building with bureaucratic manipulation by closed self-selected elites.

    Once this happens the hard to acquire skills that are required to sway crowds disappear in favour of those of the good corporate apparatchik who never has to persuade anyone of anything important who isn’t exactly like themselves – the orator is replaced by the intriguer, the persuader by the mobile-phone throwing bully, the leader who can deliver change by one who sets up a working group to draft a new mission statement, the display of knowledge and passion and commitment (however false) by the rote recitation of someone else’s talking points.

    And so where once we had Bevans and Foots and Castles now we have a a largely interchangeable cast (or indeed caste) of political pygmies – even the best of whom couldn’t inspire their way out of a paper bag.

  • Brumanuensis

    Ms Byrne might be on tenterhooks, I suppose.

  • Brumanuensis

    Ms Byrne might be on tenterhooks, I suppose.

  • Brumanuensis

    Ms Byrne might be on tenterhooks, I suppose.

  • Brumanuensis

    Ms Byrne might be on tenterhooks, I suppose.

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  • Excellent article, Mark. This’ll be my third conference – but I only go to the fringe events. 

    I always bump into Stephen Twigg for some reason, and I’m often taken aback about how much he remembers from my Facebook! 

    Conference always has the atmosphere of a family wedding to me for some reason. I always stay in the pokey hotel that is the only one not sold out…

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