As party conference season approaches, have these political menageries ever been less relevant?

by Peter Watt

So the Olympics are over and the Premier League is about to start (apologies to Scots readers, I know that the SPL has already started).  We have the fantastic Paralympics to look forward to and possibly even a little bit of late summer sun.

But, for the political world the next few weeks are the calm before the conference season madness begins.  Already political obsessives will be beginning to think about their conference itineraries.

The odd invite or two for receptions will have arrived in advance of the tsunami that will hit from early September.  Labour colleagues will be secretly smiling at the excitement of the priorities ballot; they will be wondering about this year’s conference slogan and keeping their fingers crossed about the leader’s speech.  For what it’s worth I predict that the words “fair” and “future” will feature large.

For activists, attending conference is a mix between a holiday and a religious vocation.  Party democracy is revered, the rule book studied, senior politicians are scrutinised and friends socialised with.

Anyone who is anyone makes sure that if they possibly can be there then they are.  People who would never normally willingly forego their middle class comforts are suddenly prepared to sleep on floors and worse if it means that they can attend.  If you can’t be there then you find yourself guiltily justifying yourself by saying “no, but I will definitely be there next year”.

It costs a fortune in travel, accommodation, food and of course booze.  But for a whole week of your life you feel at the centre of the world as the stories that emerge from the conference dominate the news and it’s worth every penny.  And you hungrily devour the news morning, noon and night while you’re there to make sure that the hugely important events that you are witnessing are covered fairly.

Which of course they never are; as while the conference that you are attending is always united friendly and optimistic, those rats from the press insist on reporting splits and rancour.

For politicians, party conference is a different beast, but none-the-less important.  It is an opportunity to make headlines personally and enhance or salvage a career.  Announcements can be made or recycled and journalists courted (even if they pretend that they don’t do that anymore).

In fact it is the one time in the year our politicians can immerse themselves in the one audience that makes them feel like they are real superstars.  People know who they are and are excited to see and hear them.  Activists fawn and want to be seen with them.  Lobbyists from industry, charity and business happily and openly court them and their views and are even willing to ply them with free food and booze.  And it feels good!  Better than the rest of the year anyway.

There are actually very few moments in the year when it is possible for politics to positively dominate the news for a whole day never mind a whole week and in conference Season it occasionally is just possible.  Throw in the opportunity to build a sense of a united team and a sense of purpose for the faithful and you can see why it is felt to matter.

What Christmas is for the retail trade, so the conference season is to politics.  But just like Christmas, it can often disappoint.

The rest of the population doesn’t quite appreciate the huge importance in the political calendar of the party conference for the political parties.  They probably don’t understand what would motivate someone to attend a conference and hear speech after speech.

But every year, the body politic talks about post-conference poll bounces.  Floundering politicians are lulled into the false security that they can revive their fortunes at conference.

Yet every year, fewer and fewer people are listening.  Inside the secure political fence of the conference jamboree it might still seem exciting and meaningful but if we’re honest not much further out than that.

This is not a new observation and in fact is something that an increasing number have felt strongly for some time.  And every year there are discussions about how we can revive conference.

People talk about increasing democracy or opening up conference to non-members.  There are suggestions about broadening the cultural aspects of the annual conference or the balance between speeches and seminars.

The conference set is jazzed up or jazzed down when in reality the only real event in the whole week is the leader’s speech.

The problem is that all discussions tend to revolve around “how can we revive the importance of party conference?”  Instead, the real question should be about reviving political parties.  Because it isn’t that the conferences no longer capture people’s attention, it is us – the political parties.

We have stopped being relevant or interesting to people.  We don’t excite with our vision of how it could be; we simply paint a picture of the very small world that we and our political opponents inherit.

And it is this that should increasingly concern those of us that believe in the vital role of political parties within our democracy.  But it is s a debate that thus far we seem reluctant to engage with.

Frustratingly though the prize for getting this right is very real.  The Olympics have just shown that if people are given a vision of something better, something exciting that is then delivered with focus and passion then they will respond.

I for one won’t be going to Manchester for Labour conference this year.  I’ve spent my money already on Olympics and Paralympic tickets.  And in terms of being a small part of painting a positive picture of the way that the world could be, I think that I spent wisely.

Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party

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3 Responses to “As party conference season approaches, have these political menageries ever been less relevant?”

  1. Jonny says:

    You forgot the sex.

  2. Stuart Bruce says:

    Still trying to decide if I should go this year. It’s expensive, but it’s also very anti-family. Now that we have a school age child it is basically impossible for both me and my wife to attend as we both have an equal need/right/desire to go. Secondly, last year in Liverpool it just wasn’t a good conference. It was very flat and just didn’t have the “must be there” feeling of all the conferences I’ve attended since the early/mid 90s.

  3. Jim says:

    Fair and Future, well there is nothing fair about being working class in the Blair and Brown years, as for the middle class comforts quote, you hit the nail on the head, a party for the middle classes, whatever happend to the old Labour that supported the working man?

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