Normal people don’t notice party conferences

by Peter Watt

I have had a funny old conference season, in that I have essentially “watched” them all via the media of morning and evening news broadcasts and twitter. In other words, my consumption has been filtered. Conference would have passed me by, if I hadn’t actively sought out coverage, something most normal people don’t do. All of that time, effort and money spent on the annual jamborees; and most people will have barely noticed.

My overriding impression is that those unlucky enough to have tuned in, will have hardly seen an advert for a vibrant democracy. To be honest, I no longer understand those who still believe that the status quo, in terms of political party organisation in this country, is sustainable. And before anyone thinks that this a rant aimed only at the Labour party, far from it. Just read Fraser Nelson over at The Spectator on the Tory conference:

“If conferences are increasingly attended by people who are there to meet each other, no wonder there are empty seats in the hall. Most of the passholders couldn’t care less about what’s being said in the hall. It reflects a deeper malaise across our politics more generally”.

Except Fraser is wrong. It doesn’t reflect “a deeper malaise across our politics” but rather a malaise with party politics. The hundreds of thousands of words written and spoken; the millions of pounds spent on booze, food and hotels; the angst over speeches and set designs: but still the conference season can be summed up as pretty much a non-event. Key outcomes seem to be:

  1. Liberal Democrats: we are not the Tories
  2. Labour: Tony Blair is bad, we don’t like (bad) business
  3. Conservatives: pay off your credit card and keep smiling

Not exactly a huge return in terms of political engagement. I am sure that people across the country are rejoicing.

I have also been left with another overriding impression: self delusion. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, those attending (and those of us participating vicariously) still seem to believe that it matters. There just seems to be no analysis of just how remote and irrelevant the party conferences actually are.

This week I spoke to someone who had attended the Labour party conference as a visitor. They are not a member, not even particularly political, but had to attend through their work. They were attending on the Tuesday and watched the leader’s speech and were massively underwhelmed. It seemed that they weren’t alone, and the general lack of a post speech buzz seemed to confirm that members on the whole agreed. But they were then amazed to see how the party faithful slowly talked themselves into a position where the speech was seen as a huge success by the time the first round of evening fringes had finished. They were left with a disturbing sense of the party as a pleasant but ultimately ever-so-slightly deranged group, not desperately grounded in reality. It was some consolation to hear that they felt the same having attended the Conservative party conference this week.

But conference does that. It often over and under exaggerates the importance of events in inverse proportion to their actual significance.

And my final overall impression of the conference season is shambles.

At their crudest, party conferences are opportunities to promote the virtues of the host. So the Tories spent the week dealing with Andrew Tyrie’s pronouncements on the economy before they started. This was followed by David Cameron admitting that he was sexist during an apology he made for sounding sexist. Theresa May and Ken Clarke then argued about cats. And finally David Cameron patronised voters by telling them that he was going to tell them to pay off their credit cards, even though this would worsen the economic situation. So he decided not to tell them, even though he already had, and so added looking shifty and stupid to patronising and economically illiterate. Shambolic doesn’t do it justice.

Labour fared little better. They said nothing of note for the first couple of days, then Ed Miliband made a very long speech that had three clear outcomes. First, that the party doesn’t like Tony Blair. Second, that he doesn’t like business, and third, that he was a lefty. He then spent the next two days telling everyone that actually he likes Tony Blair, that his speech wasn’t anti-business but was actually anti “business as usual” and he was in fact a politician of the centre. What a shambles.

Thank goodness no one was watching. In fact, of the three leaders, Nick Clegg had by far and away the best of the conference season. He didn’t drop any clangers, in that no one can remember anything from their week in Birmingham. Except, of course, that he made it clear that he isn’t a Tory and virtually every other speaker made the point that neither were they.  So Nick Clegg wins the battle of leaders at the conferences. Who’d have thought it? Except that the better question is who cares?

And the real problem is that no one seems to.

Peter Watt is a former general secretary of the Labour party.

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9 Responses to “Normal people don’t notice party conferences”

  1. rob the cripple says:

    Being disabled and yes really disabled, I watched all three conferences, but I’ve been interested in politics since my youth within Labour, I was boring, I actually went to meeting and understood them.

    Liberals seem to be setting them selves up once the coalition is ended, I suspect Clegg knows he’ll step down at the end and get what ever he has been offered . Speeches from all of the delegates average to poor Clegg himself had good skill when speaking but said little.

    Labour do not seem to yet know the task ahead of them, or that they are now in opposition still believe the country would vote them back in because they know how to save the country, but have not told us. Miliband comes across as posh, he’s not the type of person many in Labour would vote for and sadly his speech was broke up by problems but was still very weak, question and answers was dominated by Welfare which Miliband had not bothered to mention.

    Tories some of the speakers did not have the skills to speak sounded poor, did not get over the messages or we are in this together it was weak poor and slightly Thatcherite.
    Cameron does have the skill, he was good, he was confident, and he was Blair like, which was why he was picked in the first place as was Clegg, but does anyone believe Cameron knows how we are suffering with £35 million in the bank.

  2. swatantra says:

    Labour has to become the Party of small businesses and enterprise otherwise it is frankly going nnowhere. The impression I got is that it is changing its tune, slowly but surely. The Tores will always tbe the Party of Big Business whch kills High streets and our Communities.
    But the real reason People are staying away is because of the wretced security
    Labour had an idea of an Conference Open Day which worked in a small way.
    Next year perhaps we could have all week of Conference Open, to anybody that wants to drop in. No Security, No Barriers, No Nothing to prevent face to face meeting with he ordinary people of Manchester. It would be more fun and productive.
    Really, politicians should take their chances, certainly Opposition politicians however high or low, have nothing to lose.

  3. Nick says:

    It doesn’t reflect “a deeper malaise across our politics” but rather a malaise with party politics.


    Yes it does.

    1. You and other politicians lie to get elected. e.g Lib Dems on tuition fees.

    2. You and other politicians lie by omission. ie. You do things you haven’t told us, but knew about. eg. Debts.

    3. We have no say in who becomes a candidate. Selection committee? About 5 people for a safe seat.

    4. Criminals in the commons. 52% committed fraud. Why should a Labour voter have to vote for a party they don’t want to in order to get rid of a crook up to 5 years after the event?

    5. Why should people vote for a package? People should be allowed a direct vote on an issue.

    6. People change. Why shouldn’t they be allowed to change their mind more frequently than every 5 years? e.g Put up with parties that wouldn’t command a majority if there were an election tomorrow.

    They are pissed off with you because of the mess. e.g Today we have the spending figures.


    Look also at what happens when the electorate is given a say, for example over council tax. Result – no increase. If they had the choice, it would have been a reduction and probably a massive reduction.

    So much for the electorate.

    ie. When politicians carry on sticking two fingers up to the electorate , and behaving along the lines of “I’m alright Jack”, what do you expect.

    It’s you who are the problem.

  4. Dan McCurry says:

    It’s not anti-business to be against predatory business. We have a right to be protected.

  5. Ralph Baldwin says:

    Agreed, they are also used for political “fixes” too.

    You would never find me at a Conference when you can visit so many more beneficial events that do things in the country and the world and really do make a difference.

    Conference is like watching that old black and white movie you’ve seen a hundred times (yawn).

    Meanwhile the public have far greater concerns at the moment that are far more important, the public are concerned with politics, which is far more important.

  6. Alex_N says:

    Peter, really you need to propose an alternative. Your increasing negativity of tone and content is obscuring your many useful analyses.

    I only know about Labour conference, as a sporadic attender for about 20 years. We know the decision making power is long gone and that they are now more of a convention. We know there is an element of stage management – there has to be.

    What Labour conference still offers is a chance for ordinary members to attend as delegates or visitors and become involved in political discussion and debate of a different sort to that they encounter in their constituencies and unions. Sure those attending are the more active members but the vast majority are not so different from the ‘normal people’ you refer to so lovingly. Much of the discussion amongst members happens under the radar – informally and at fringe meetings, so is not picked up by the visiting media and assorted hangers on. In Liverpool they rarely ventured out their own mini bubble between the Conference Hall and Jury’s Inn bar. If they had got out more they would have found that most of the fringe meetings were mainly populated by members not lobbyists and that on the whole they contained intelligent discussion and contributions. There is a value in that not just for Labour but the political culture of the country.

    Political conferences do need to be changed, improved and made fit for purpose. I look forward to reading the next instalment of your thinking where you set out what we might do next. Your background suggests you have a contribution to make.

  7. Daniel Henry says:

    One thing I felt missing from your post was the role of members at conference.

    For example, the Lib Dems in their conference were able to vote and determine party policy. It allowed ordinary members to propose motions that could change government legislation. A liberal youth member successfully put through a motion to challenge the way the incapacity benefit is handled. Last conference the members famously challenged the leaderships position on the NHS, demanding changes that led to the listening exercise and significant amendments to the bill.

    It remains to be seen how far these policies will make it in the coalition government, but the fact remains that the Lib Dem conference allows ordinary members to determine party policy and even affect government legislation.

    Perhaps that’s the advert for thriving democracy you were looking for?

  8. Nick says:

    It’s not anti-business to be against predatory business. We have a right to be protected.


    There is a simple solution. Don’t buy from them.

    Unfortunately, you can’t easily protect yourself against a predatory government, and a fraudulent one too.

    We have no protection against governments lying and cheating, and committing crimes.

    For example, try finding your state pension in the government debts. They aren’t there. It’s a fraud even more brazen than Bernie Maddoff.

  9. Bryce Beaton says:

    The Labour must become the Party of small businesses and enterprise otherwise it is frankly going nnowhere. The impression I got is that it is changing its tune, slowly but surely. The Tores will always tbe the Party of Big Business whch kills High streets and our Communities.
    Of course, the real reason People are staying away is because of the wretced lack of security.

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