From “the lady’s not for turning”, to Neil Kinnock’s unfortunate seaside walk, and more recently the PM’s P45, party conferences provide an annual catalogue of political gaffes, gossip and even the occasional policy. But this year, as many of us embark on our seventh month of remote working, just how successfully did the main political parties make the transition to online events?
As restrictions came in over the Spring, it looked as though the season could be cancelled all together. But slowly, as workplaces including Parliament realised that that virtual meetings could be effective, online agendas for each of the main parties were announced.
Clearly this was always going to feel very different, and not just from a social standpoint. Party conferences are important platforms for leaders to enthuse their party faithful, set a direction for the year ahead and unite factions.
But broadcasting from empty rooms the party leaders’ speeches lacked the conference hall applause that would have buoyed the mood in a physical venue. For the Prime Minister, facing accusations that he is not in control of the Covid-19 crisis, this could have been an opportunity to resurrect his faltering leadership and bolster the Tory base. For Sirs Keir and Ed, delivering their first leaders’ speeches, it was a chance to unite their parties and set out their stall to members around the country.
But in the virtual format, without the punctuation of applause and laughter, the speeches were necessarily shorter, more serious, even a little awkward. Unlike at physical conferences, there was not rolling news present and media interest was scant.
There was also far less policy than usual. This is partly due to the obvious dominance of Covid-19, as well as where 2020 falls in the electoral cycle. But virtual conference also robbed parties such as Labour and the Liberal Democrats of conducting their formal processes of proposing, debating and voting on policy. Not such a concern for the Conservative Party, whose annual jamboree is generally focussed on personality rather than process. But without a high-profile opportunity to set out new ideas, the Tories remain defined by their response to the pandemic, and to a lesser extent, Brexit, with little sign of a wider vision.
Ahead of the conference season, the Conservatives briefed that they had the largest number of registered attendees ever. But it was always going to be difficult for any party to engage a virtual audience, even when the WiFi connection is stable. While Labour tried to differentiate their event as “Labour Connected”, focussing more on training sessions for campaign teams, the Conservatives sought to replicate the same sponsorship opportunities as a physical event. Conference is an important revenue raising moment, worth £5 million for the governing party, but for the first time this year attendees could register for free. CCHQ have already put out a call to supporters for additional donations -but even with the goodwill of members, they will struggle to replace the sums they might usually expect to receive from sponsoring businesses.
The usually bustling exhibition hall was replaced by a sparsely populated 3D rendering. All credit to those organisations who purchased “stalls”, and particularly those that created custom video content and manned virtual chat functions to speak to delegates. These were some of the best examples of adapting to the new format and will prepare organisations well for new ways of working that might emerge, post-pandemic.
The fringe calendar too, was far lighter than normal, represented by a circular encampment of mostly unclaimed tents. But at least the panels were well stocked, with it being easier than ever for Ministers to tour different events from the comfort of their office or living room. Those who spoke at events report that there were a healthy number of questions from the floor, which is encouraging given the possibility of webinar fatigue.
So unsurprisingly, the virtual events had their drawbacks for the parties. But what about the positives? Well, with an election potentially more than four years away and a crisis gripping all of Government, now is perhaps not the time for party political chest beating. It’s somewhat helpful too in allowing the leaders to set out their views in a limited way, without the opportunity for bar room plotting or MPs sniping at fringe events.
Regardless, next year, the parties hope to be able to meet in person. It will be an important moment to set the political tone as they – hopefully – look back on the end of the Covid crisis. Alongside the political imperatives, parties will undoubtedly look to once again drum up support and attendance from business sponsors and exhibitors. But if there is one lesson from this year’s conference season, it is to show businesses that there are other, content-rich ways to engage with MPs that are perhaps cheaper and more effective in the long run. The challenge for the parties, is how to coax them back into the room.