What is party conference for?

by Peter Watt

I have been pondering for a while what exactly party conferences are about. What are they for? This week Labour has announced that it will hold an “open day” at its conference in Liverpool.  Up to 2000 members of the public are invited to attend and can register online for a full day’s programme of policy discussions. Wednesday 28 September is described as:

“…the first of its kind from any political party, is an opportunity for you to join the conversation about the challenges our country faces and talk to Labour Leader, Ed Miliband, and the Shadow Cabinet face to face”.

I think that this is probably a good idea; well in a symbolic way at least. It sends a signal that the leadership is determined to open up the party beyond the dwindling band of party activists. And that has to be a good thing. It is clearly unsustainable for handfuls (relatively) of party activists to maintain the pretence that they alone should determine policy, choose candidates and so on. But does it go far enough and will anyone be interested?

For years there has been a tension about the role of the party conference. On the one hand there are those who cling to the notion that conference is predominately the ultimate parliament of the party. For them the focus is internal, as the rule book says:

“The work of the party shall be under the direction and control of party conference.” (Chapter 1, VI.1)

And on the other hand, there are those who see conference as a public showcase for the party. For them, the last week in September is an opportunity to speak to the public, network with colleagues and possibly raise some much needed money for national party coffers. Incidentally, while lots of money can be made on the exhibition and sponsorship, it clearly also costs thousands to stage. Conference makes a little bit of money in good years, and in more difficult years it loses money. If the sponsors stay away or the exhibitors don’t exhibit then income drops, but costs don’t. The smaller conferences (spring, women’s and the like) all lose money.

There were proposals a few years ago to build up the fringe and social elements of conference and worry less about the formal sessions. The theory was that as partnership in power was a four yearly process, the reality was that only the last year in the cycle was the important one. In between we could have more flexible events that emphasized the social, networking and cultural, and also provided a welcome media backdrop for senior politicians. It never really went anywhere. And instead we just kept building the bureaucracy of the partnership in power process to justify a week away every year.

It’s not that you can’t both focus externally and internally, and in fact that is essentially what we do. But it is the extent to which you emphasise either that, sometimes, leads to tension. On a day-by-day basis, at every conference, if you know where to look, you can see the tension laid bare. In theory everything at conference is tightly controlled by the conference arrangements committee (CAC) on behalf of the delegates. That is until, say, the detailed arrangements for the leaders speech or a special guest speaker are being planned and CAC is all but excluded. In theory, only conference delegates are allowed in delegate’s seats. That is until TV pictures need bums on seats. On the last day, when lots of people have already gone home, even exhibitors are dragged to sit on seats. And we all know that most of those attending conference hardly ever, if at all, go into the conference hall. They enjoy the fringe, exhibition and the social opportunities and have only a fleeting interest in the formal business.

Over the years this tension has been tested as proposals have been made to gently open up the party. I remember a few years ago, that we invited members of the public to a national policy forum event, in Nottingham I think. Many members of the forum were opposed to it, as it undermined their sovereign authority as elected representatives or some such nonsense. What happened was that the quality of the debate improved as forum members recognised that they were being watched.

So my first thought about the “open day” proposal is why only on one day? Why not invite them every day? We can make sure that only delegates can vote, if we want to, so are we worried about what they might see? Are we worried that we might not like the loss of exclusivity, the feeling of being in a special club? There is a danger that the current proposal has the opposite effect to that which is intended. Instead of appearing to make us look more open, it actually emphasises our exclusivity. Imagine how we would respond to a proposal by the Freemasons to invite a few members of the public to an open day.

But my second thought is: maybe we are approaching this in the wrong way. For a start, shouldn’t we be making more of an effort to get ourselves invited to things that matter to the public? Surely that is better than inviting a select “lucky” few to our own favourite gig? What about exploring how party members can better become seen as useful parts of existing community networks?  Or looking at how our values can work with those who, currently, don’t see us as a solution to their problems? I would suspect that we would need to work hard to find “ordinary members of the public” who want to attend in any case.

Even though I’m not actually sure quite what party conferences are for, I think that the “open day” proposal is, on balance, a good one. However, I worry that it risks exacerbating a sense of exclusivity, unless it is quickly extended. But most of all, I think that it could be missing the point. It is not that we need to open up so that the public will then come to us; it’s about thinking about why much of the public think that we, and indeed political parties generally, are irrelevant to them and the problems that they face.

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

Tags: , , ,

5 Responses to “What is party conference for?”

  1. swatantra says:

    I agree with Peter, the Open Day is a great idea, and Peter suggested something similar in Nottingham. But every day would be too much.
    The Open Day inviting the public, not necessarily activists in would remind Conference that there is another parallel world out there, a real world, of ordinary people, not necessarily all ‘activists’ with closed minds.
    Its good to hear the views of an ex General Secretary about the purpose of ‘Conference’. After all, when Labour is in Govt, the decisions taken are not binding. And too often Conference has beome one big Rally. Thats why the Conference Hall is empty most of the time.

  2. Mike Killingworth says:

    Amazing. A former General Secretary of the Party doesn’t know what its conference is for.

  3. David Talbot says:

    Would an invitation to a party conference really solve all the political ills you describe? And, frankly, who would bother turning up – let alone contribute something meaningful. CLPs can barely be bothered to send delegates themselves, are member s of the public really going to pop in for a quick chat on pension reform?

    Not to be cynical, of course.

    “They enjoy the fringe, exhibition and the social opportunities and have only a fleeting interest in the formal business.”

    Spot on. The internal bureaucracy of the Labour party bores me to tears.

  4. Henrik says:

    I wonder what members of the public – let’s say normal folk, who don’t actually give much of a stuff about politics, in any case – would gain from attending any party conference, whether it’s Labour, Conservative or that other crowd whose name escapes me.

    With the proviso that I’ve never attended a conference and my knowledge is restricted to what I’ve seen on the TV and read in the papers over the years, it seems to me that these are extensively stage-managed affairs, organised by political wonks, for political wonks, that little debate of substance or real policy development takes place and that dissenting or ‘ignorant’ voices would not be encouraged.

    I sense that politics has evolved into an exclusive game, played by those who both buy into the accepted rules and who come from a relatively narrowly defined section of society. The rest of us just want to get on with our lives and raise our families to be happier than we were – and if they’re like me, find that no single party represents the totality of our views (assuming there are any clues around as to what a given party’s views are).

  5. Edward Carlsson Browne says:

    There’s a pretence that party activists determine policy? Anybody pretending that is delusional. If conference was the sovereign body it masquerades as, then you wouldn’t have a situation where “most of those attending conference hardly ever, if at all, go into the conference hall”. Everybody knows you don’t vote on anything unless the leadership are sure they’ve got the votes for their favoured position.

    So yeah, by all means let’s have an open day. Let’s get more people in. But if we’re going to do that, we have to at least try to make conference look meaningful. If even most party activists think conference is a pointless photo-opportunity (and when did you last see an election for conference delegate at your AGM?) then I hardly think the general public are going to be more infatuated with it.

Leave a Reply