As we head into the last round of party conferences before the election, the trio of events should be more important than ever. But conferences are not what they used to be.
First devised as a forum for debate and connection among the rank and file, in the TV age they became stage-managed showcases for the leadership. A cynic might say in this Parliament they have seemed more like fundraising networking events, and there are few signs of renaissance.
Held by the then-new leader of the Conservative Party, Benjamin Disraeli, the first party conference took place in 1867 at the Freemasons Tavern in London. The idea of the event and the formation of the National Union were part of the modernising of political parties in response to the Second Reform Act of 1867 which had extended the franchise to 1.5 million working men.
Party conferences were initially dominated by policy debates and votes on the conference floor by party members, however this for the most part has now gone. While there are still variations amongst the parties, with Labour and the Liberal Democrats still holding votes on policy motions, the process is as carefully managed as possible, with debate seen as a sign of division and weakness.
For the party leadership at least conference is a chance to dominate news coverage for a few days and boost the morale of their supporters. Or, if it doesn’t go to plan, fend off leadership challenges and demonstrate leadership. Margaret Thatcher’s speech of 1980 is a prime example. Often classed as her defining moment, “The lady’s not for turning” speech made a powerful statement as opposition mounted over her economic policies.
For today’s leaders, some of the intended audience for those speeches wouldn’t even be in the hall. In September 2013, ComRes published a poll which suggested 38% of Conservative backbenches would be unlikely to attend conference. 14% of Labour MPs also stated they wouldn’t be attending, although every Liberal Democrat polled said they would be probably or definitely be going.
Having attended my first party conference last year in Brighton, it was apparent that journalists, lobbyists and think tanks dominated. While there were fringe meetings to attend and acquaintances to renew, MPs seemed thin on the ground, save for a few recurring faces. With bars open late into the night, party conference has evolved into a weekend of networking rather than policy making.
There have been proposals over the years to reduce party conference in size, or only hold them in the year before an election, but it would be a brave party leader who took the first step. Even today, conferences seem like a necessary part of the political process, even if their democratic origins seem distant.
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