The problem with party conferences…

I’m a political geek. I like to talk to people about politics on Twitter. I’m training my 16-month-old daughter to find Andrew Marr’s voice soothing during his Sunday morning show, such a must-watch it is (and, lets be frank, the only time in the week when the BBC is setting the political agenda, rather than following the generally print-led one).

As a former political reporter, I have a whole bunch of fond memories from covering the 2003 party conferences – Labour in Bournemouth and the Tories in Blackpool. Labour were at the height of their powers, and the sharp suits of the lobbying and political chattering classes outnumbered grassroot Labour activists by about 25 to one at any given moment. The Tories, on the other hand, were at a very low ebb – and the faded glory of Blackpool’s Winter Gardens and the effort required to walk 10 minutes to the main conference hotel in battering gales on Blackpool seafront were both suitable metaphors for a party which seemed to have lost its way.

But, having watched (on rolling news) and listened (generally on the generally excellent Five Live) to a lot of what went on in this year’s party conferences I can’t help but come to the conclusion that they don’t deserve the attention they get these days.

I learned a valuable lesson in 2003: I had always mistakenly thought that party conferences were the places where political direction was set through active discussion between the big wigs and party activists. That certainly used to be the case, and there certainly was (and still is) discussion at fringe meetings but you’re more likely to see a Home Counties party chairman wearing a kiss-me-quick hat while riding a donkey along the Golden Mile than you are to witness true political discourse in the main political arena of a party conference.

Sure, upsets can still happen. Tony Blair was wrong-footed on pensions in Bournemouth, and while Iain Duncan-Smith was ‘turning up the volume,’ the party dinosaurs in siderooms were working out how to press the mute button quickly. In the setting of the Winter Gardens, it was more Supergran that Sopranos. The Lib Dems, maybe the only mainstream party to try and remain true to the belief that conferences should be about open discussion, have been caught out a couple of times while in coalition but these are exceptions to a depressing rule. (And yet, the Lib Dems are probably the only party who can claim their discussions change policy – look at what happened to the NHS plans).

Generally, however, party conferences are so carefully scripted and planned that they are little more than a propaganda rally. There is no accountability through open discussion – that’s disappeared over the last decade. If we blame New Labour for leading the charge of turning party conferences into ra-ra rallies, then it’s probably fair to blame the early years of David Cameron’s Conservatives for the other big problem with party conferences now: Lack of policies.

According to the BBC’s political reporter Norman Smith, speaking on NewsWatch this morning, education secretary Michael Gove told reporters: “If you see a new policy in my speech, or a new announcement, you’re wrong. There’s nothing new there.” So what exactly did he waffle on about? Likewise the transport secretary, the home secretary, the foreign secretary and, to be honest, the PM too. Save the odd promise about being able to attack a burglar if he breaks in, what did the Tories announce?

It’s worse for the opposition. Other than Ed Balls’s idea to spend 4G network cash on building houses – which isn’t even a policy he’ll put into the next manifesto because it’ll be redundant then – Labour didn’t offer a glimpse of what they’d do if they were in power in 2015. Labour supporters claim this is because their best ideas would be nicked by the Government (a tad rich, given Gordon Brown did exactly that) but that isn’t an excuse – it’s a reason to pay the conferences less attention. They might as well say: “Britain! Listen to us! We’re not going to tell you anything but listen! We’re important!”

So why are they still so important on the news agenda? You could argue it still gives you a great opportunity to find out what grassroots supporters think – but does it? At the Lib Dem conference, it looked as those black curtains were being cleverly used to disguise the empty seats. In Manchester, political parties have discovered Manchester Central (The GMEX in old money) is ideal for shrinking or increasing the size of the main auditorium.  As for the theatre used at the ICC in Birmingham for the Tories, the aerial shot showed very wide aisles – but maybe there were a lot of people in the balcony seats. In short, if fewer party activists are attending, why are we bothering going?

Party conferences now feel like the Westminster bubble on tour, and little else.

For the local press, I’d argue there’s a strong case for trying to get there. Not to cover the national lines, but to get to the fringe meetings which offer a chance to get under the skin of political issues which are relevant to any given area, while it can be an invaluable exercise for contact building – with current MPs, would-be MPs and influential party activists (those who attend are generally very committed).

There are interesting ways to cover them locally too. Here’s David Bartlett’s excellent blog which invited guest posts from people in Liverpool attending conference or the Manchester Evening News getting a campaign into the heart of a conference (live tweeting of conferences and fringe meetings and giving instant local context was done well in Manchester too).

But the amount of time and attention lavished on events which are little more than a procession of verbal press releases? The party conferences have changed and moved on, but sadly the media hasn’t.  Quizzed about this, Norman Smith said the rise in the amount of speculation in news coverage was due to the lack of firm policies to talk about – hence the Gove reference.

I think he’s right and wrong. The Lobby love gossip and speculation, and have enough people around them to talk to about it. But how much of that gossip do the public at large generally care about? I’d argue very little – so basic news judgment should suggest that fewer policies means less coverage in the news. In the same way a local newspaper shouldn’t lead it’s back page with a striker promising to score just because they have to have a football back page lead, surely we shouldn’t continue to lavish party conferences with the same level of coverage, words and attention if they’re really not newsworthy any more?





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