Are we set for a quiet conference this year? (And why “more votes at conference” isn’t the answer)

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In a sense every Labour conference these days is a bit of a quiet conference, as there’s little in the way of intrigue and almost nothing in the way of democracy. That’s why I (somewhat tongue in cheek) suggested a few weeks ago that conference should be abolished. Now anyone who has ever spoken to me about conference knows I actually quite enjoy it, but what I was trying to do was start a debate about what conference is for. Neil Lawson has done something similar over at the New Statesman today (I’ll come to Neil’s argument – and where I disagree with him – in a bit).

But what really concerns me is that party political conferences – because the point of them is not immediately clear in the way it once was – could end up withering away. And that was bright home to me by the latest LabourList State of the Party survey, which showed that a huge 63% of our readers won’t be attending conference this year, and only 27% definitely will be. Now those percentages are still quite high when compared to the nation at large (where spending nearly a week at a political conference is seen as a sign of being a bit strange), but considering that LabourList readers are already vastly more likely to be interested/involved in politics, the fact that such a small percentage are going is a cause for concern.

But not surprising.

Back when I initially had a pop at the modern party political conference, and its dwindling relevance, Toby Perkins MP put forward a passionate and thoughtful response which largely focused on the opportunity for party activists to become engaged with debates in their party and meet MPs. There is much to recommend about Toby’s response and I’d urge you to read it – but my concern is that the cost and length of party conferences, when combined with their somewhat obtuse nature, simply make conference a further example of our out of touch political culture. Of course you can use Labour conference to meet politicans and join debates – but you need to be a member, either become a delegate or pay a sizeable entry fee, sort out travel and accomodation for nearly a week, and take a week off work.

For many of even the most dedicated Labour supporters, that’s not feasible. Especially when conferences often resemble alcohol soaked talking shops.

Which brings us to Neil Lawson’s argument over at the New Statesman. Neil seems to long for a halcyon time when the party activist would live for the humming of a photocopier and the opportunity to thrust their recently scrawled leaflet into the hand of the engaged and dedicated conference delegate, who would consider the views of the pamphlet, engage with them, and allow such treatise to influence their vote. A sort of pure and open party democracy for all:

“We spent the day organising votes, handing out our leaflets and daily bulletins.  The nights were spent on rudimentary computers and typesetting equipment producing the materials for the next day before going down to a printer in the basement of some dodgy B&B that churned away all night. We slept on floors and ate chips.”

Now I must admit that these conference of which Neil speaks were well before my time, and I speak with the benefit of hindsight. But that doesn’t seem to be what party conferences were like back then at all. They appear to have been divisive, shouty, angry affairs, focussed on issues that didn’t seem to have direct relevance to people watching at home, and which suggested we probably shouldn’t be trusted with the keys to Downing Street.

And I hate to get all electoral about this, but you can’t change the country if you can’t win an election. Therefore, an election which damages our chances of winning elections is A Bad Thing.

Now I’m all in favour of more party democracy, as regular readers will know, but I’d much rather hand it to – for example – the NPF, which is elected by a ballot of all members, rather than conference, which is selected by CLP delegates months and months before conference. Often – in the case of some CLPs I’ve been a member of, the meeting to select conference delegates is barely quorate, and the delegates selected are those who can be encouraged to go, rather than, perhaps, those who have a burning desire to represent the views of the CLP on a national stage. Unrepresentative CLP meetings elect those who can be bothered to go, creating unrepresentative conference delegations.

That doesn’t sound like a massive and beneficial democratic upgrade to me. The party from root to branch is too desiccated and democratically defunct for something like that to work.

“Back in the real world, people go to festivals of music, books, poetry and comedy”, says Lawson. Yes they do. And most of those events are dominated by fringe meetings that look – whisper it – much like the politcal fringes that surround party conferences. In fact, some of the fringes at Labour conferences this year look far more appetising than some of the fare available at Hay-on-Wye, but I’m a political obsessive, so I would say that.

Lawson also wants to see Labour conference “billed as the Forum for Responsible Capitalism?” I can see why that may appeal to some, but it’s an idea as founded in the Westminster Village wonkery as any obscure Labour Party conference event. It’s not in the language that ordinary people employ, and is an excluding as any amount of security fencing.

In short, party political conferences don’t work as they are, exclude ordinary people, and are of dwindling importance. However the alternatives seem to either involve returning to a kind of conference that either didn’t even exist (and if they did, wouldn’t be that democratic and would be a liability) or a sort of amorphous community forum with attendant flip charts.

Maybe I should have taken my tongue out of my cheek when I called for them to be scrapped after all…but let me leave you with three quick suggestions for a better conference to chew over. Make them cheaper. Make them shorter. And make them over weekends. That might draw in more ordinary members at a stroke. We can tackle the other – multitudinous – problems once we’ve actually got people turning up.

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