Originally written for publication in The Student Journals
Over the past few weeks, we’ve been bombarded by coverage of politicians pushing us finely tuned policy and highly charged rhetoric. Ed Miliband has told us that his is the “one nation” party, Nick Clegg has positioned himself as a future king-maker and Boris Johnson (seemingly assuming the role of Tory leader) took to the stage to talk about hobnobs. Politics has indeed been hitting the headlines. But, as party membership continues to decline, perhaps now might be time to assess the role of the party conference.
Putting aside general and local elections, party conferences are arguably still considered the most important events in the political calendar. Like-minded individuals – who often don’t have the luxury of living on a politically cosmopolitan university campus – get the chance to mingle. The strategy of the party is set and its core messages are communicated. Conferences also take politics out of Westminster and across the country. On the surface at least, they seem to play a valuable role in British politics.
But over the past twenty years, party conferences have undergone a radical transformation. The aforementioned decline in party membership has undoubtedly had a role to play. Leaders have seen less to gain from appeasing the party faithful, simply because there are less of them. They have been encouraged to seek out the centre-ground and chase the increasing numbers of “floating voters”. And since Blair, they have felt the need (perhaps justifiably) to develop acute awareness of their media image in order to accomplish this.
Taken together, these factors have had a significant effect on the set-ups and, ultimately, the purposes of the previously participatory party conferences. They have been redesigned to focus almost entirely on those who see the conference on the news at home, rather than those party members who have attended.
To appease a media for which style supersedes substance, leaders have allowed their conferences to become the playthings of party spin doctors. They have become yet another platform from which meaningless sound bites can be delivered. In the leaders’ speeches themselves, vague demographic catch-alls, like David Cameron’s ‘aspiration nation’, are the name of the game. They are perfectly choreographed; everything from the lighting to the music is obsessed over, all with the aim of producing (and carefully polishing) an appealing image for outsiders.
Policy may be announced at conferences but it is frequently formulated well in advance and when delegates are given the chance to have their say, they are frequently overruled. This is even the case for Labour, which still formally regards their conference as the ‘supreme authority of the party’.
The party conferences have instead become more like rallies; rallies to be orchestrated by the leadership and broadcast by the media. Asked for obedience and offered nothing in return, it’s no wonder that in addition to party membership, the attendance of party members at the conferences is also in decline.
Perhaps, then, it really is time for change. Parties need their members and they can do so much more with them at conferences than give them time to clap. At these gatherings, they have an opportunity to offer delegates a sense of ownership and belonging: a stake in their party. They have few other opportunities to do so on this scale and plenty of time to announce policy and talk in platitudes to the public.
If there is going to be a change, leaders need to stop believing the hype. A conference speech that will be seen on BBC News will not win an election, no matter how well delivered it is. However, canvassing will. Maintaining an enthusiastic base is key. Party conferences should do more than provide the platforms for stage-managed speeches and those behind them need to stop taking their delegates for granted. Conferences have not necessarily had their day. They can be saved, but they will need to be transformed.