Published on 2 Oct 2012

Party conferences: past their sell-by date?

Labour have lost the rose and embraced the Olympic/Paralympic-ennobled union flag. In tribute, the workers’ blood red has leached away into Olympic fuchsia.

The backdrop of staging has become a gentle blue. Not far from the blue that so projected Margaret Thatcher on to an unsuspecting stage in the Tory Party conferences of the 1970s.

Turn the sound down on this year’s Labour Party conference and you could be forgiven for thinking that you were at one of the others. Time was when Labour would have gone to the ramparts before ever trading the red flag for the union’s emblem.

Time was when a debate at a party conference was a debate, a clash of ideas, speakers from different perspectives, and votes on issues. But such open shows of political candour were deemed too dangerous, likely to scare the populous, let alone the horses. Today rounds of applause abound. I have yet to hear a heckle or a boo. Yet isn’t the stuff of political argument, the odd moment of bad behaviour?

News is the occurrence of the unexpected. Very little “unexpected” is permitted in the set-piece plenary moments of any party conference these days. The unexpected, if it occurs, occurs on the fringe. Here there are flashes of passion. But when the hands go up for questions, the arms, more often than not, belong to NGOs and think tanks.

So how does all this go down in the wider world? Have the conferences become mere shop windows? If they have where is the real debate? Is there one?

We live in the most connected age we have ever lived in. Yet the sense of connectivity with the outside world at all these conferences seems, if anything, to be going the other way. If there is no spark from the floor, beyond the clapping hands, is the spark somewhere out there in cyber-space? If it is, it does not make its way in here to the cavernous ICC in Manchester. Tweets are neither solicited nor displayed, Facebook is never referred to.

Pollsters have been talking here about how young people are not voting. My sense here is that the ambition is safety first. No risk. No danger of someone shouting, “How about doing it this way?”, or “Can we talk about mental health?”, or some such. The propagandists have taken over the hen coup and the party conference as a mechanism for connecting politics with the electorate is in danger of imminent death.

One of the benefits today is that we get to see a man who aspires to be the next prime minister and hear what he has to say. We get to listen to men and women who seek to be in his cabinet, but is it enough? Is that all there is, or all there needs to be to justify these vast panjandrums?

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7 reader comments

  1. Philip Edwards says:

    Jon,

    Britain, like the USA and much of Europe, now amounts to little more than an authoritarian, one-party right wing state with different factions.

    The Labour Party was sold down the river first by Callaghan, then by Kinnock and finally by Blair. They and their allies set out to destroy grass roots democratic social decency in the party, and by and large they managed it. All the founding principles were disposed of, all in the name of “pragmatism” (read: cowardice and opportunism). The Tories of course have never been any different – they will always steal the food from your mouth to make more profits. The Lib Dems are little more than a gang of poujadist rentiers.

    And having had a clear run for a complete generation they cannot claim current circumstances on unions or “militancy.” Together, they enabled the nation to be looted by the bankers, and lied too by their mainstream media hired hands.

    So…..annual “conferences”?….Nothing more than tenth rate sideshows featuring sound bites manufactured by right wing apparatchiks.

    And that’s the way the bankers want it.

  2. Y.S. says:

    Miss the old times….
    For the motion of “giving bumper pay rises and pensions to all public sector workers”.
    Unite 3m votes
    GMB 2m votes
    Rest of Labour party 355, 253 votes.
    Motion carried.

  3. Britt_W says:

    Yes, party conferences are a waste of time and money. Lots of unnecessary travel, jollies with late bar boozing, lots of PR, media scrums and sponsorship, key rings and the rest of it. There is no creating of new debate, no moving forward, not bouncing of ideas – it’s more about the latest polls, the image, the charisma or possibly the lack thereof. Oh and the wives. We mustn’t forget the wives. Sigh.
    I wish politics were more about real ideas and underlying ideologies – and less about spin and style. And wives.

  4. Philip says:

    It’s not just party conferences,it’s the general feeling people have that not only are they not listened to, they have virtually no chance of actually making their points to anyone who is listening. Who needs to listen to real people when you can do it privately & more safely in a focus group? With the social media explosion, you’d think there was a possibility for better communication down that route, but it doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere fast. If politicians spent more time among ordinary people listening & sometimes explaining, they’d have a better basis for what they say & do than this constant playing for short term political advantage and their own preconceptions about what nees to be done. The PR men are making us less & less democratic – & if you feel no-one’s listening to you or even prepared to listen to you, you either switch off or you turn to different ways of getting yourself heard.

  5. Yorkshire Lass says:

    ” The PR men are making us less & less democratic – & if you feel no-one’s listening to you or even prepared to listen to you, you either switch off or you turn to different ways of getting yourself heard.”

    Very true, Philip – and many do switch off, saying “they’re all the same”, which may or may not be true. Others take to the likes of Avaaz and 38 Degrees. Not sure where it gets us but it makes me for one feel better.

  6. margaret brandreth-jones says:

    If you join our party and vote for us , we will promise you a job! If you are for the other side well …you will have to join them if they get elected they too will promise you preferential treatment..AND THEN TELL BARE FACED LIES

    I have never seen such a lot of hard faced tories as were in in the last labour government. At least conservatives didnt bully.

  7. Robert Taggart says:

    Party Conferences – are they on at the moment ?!

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