I’ve been on my annual three week pilgrimage to the three main party conferences. I’m going to blog very soon about the two fringes I chaired for ResPublica, which both felt like they weren’t the usual social care discussions which can sometimes blend into one morass of demographic time bombs, resource shortages and people wondering if we shouldn’t be talking more to the housing sector.
In the meantime, I wanted to say something about the whole idea of party conferences. If you’ve never been lucky enough (!) to attend, there are essentially two events going on in parallel. In the big hall those increasingly rare eccentrics (sorry Tris!) who actually participate actively in grassroots party politics listen to speeches and clap. Only the Lib Dems actually let party members vote on anything of consequence, and even then on the strict understanding that the party leaders can, when push comes to shove, ignore most of what they say. Almost entirely separately, in countless hotel meeting rooms surrounding the hall, half the charity sector pitches up to hold debates and meetings about their particular issues. Many of them have banded together into partnerships around particular themes, based on our sector’s Health Hotel partnership.
This twin-track approach to party conferences has worked for years. The party members do their thing, and with civil servants not allowed to attend, the lobbyists and charities get unchaperoned access to Ministers and their shadows, whilst making some new contacts with interested MPs and the odd councillor and stocking up on a year’s supply of post-it notes from the exhibition stands. It’s exhausting – this year I went to 7.30am breakfast meetings and receptions which were still going strong towards midnight – and the quality of conversations can be variable, given that Ministers and shadows cram in as many fringe appearances and meetings as is humanly possible and the whole event is fuelled by finger food and cheap wine. It’s also expensive: the political parties make considerable income from charging for passes and the venues and hotels inflate their prices. But it’s generally felt worth it as a way of keeping your issue on politicians’ agendas, raising awareness with new MPs and keeping your organisation’s profile high within the sector. Occasionally, a politician will make a commitment which they wouldn’t necessarily have made under the watchful eyes of their officials in the cold light of Westminster.
This year, all three events were noticeably smaller and it seemed like the most common conversation I had with colleagues was, “Will you do this again next year?” There were fewer journalists (my colleague ponders, “if a politician gives a speech and no one hears it, did it really happen?”). The shrinking size of the events is partly just economics: I spent four and a half days across the three events this year, whereas in the past I might have spent up to three days at one event. The events I took part in didn’t cost us anything extra, whereas last year we spent a modest amount on co-hosting meetings with other organisations. It’s also mid-term, whereas lobbying activity becomes more frenzied towards election time. But, in my opinion, party conferences are not just going through a dip; they are slowly dying, for reasons which say worrying things about British politics.
Most of us would assume that every MP and a good many councillors attend their party’s main event of the year. But as parties have become obsessed by avoiding anything that looks like in-fighting and make their policy decisions in small committees away from their members, there is little reason for most MPs and councillors to attend. Increasingly, contact with politicians is limited to the ministerial or shadow team. Even some of those seemingly can’t see the value in an opportunity for off the record discussions with experts on the issue of which they’ve been placed in charge. One holder of a health brief managed to turn up spectacularly late to at least three events organised, no doubt with considerable effort and expense, by leading charities. Others were noticeably absent from some of the largest gatherings of relevant charities they will be invited to all year. Many (most?) MPs and councillors simply don’t go at all.
All of the parties have traded the opportunity to get a well-applauded soundbite on the evening news, for the opportunity to have real engagement with their members. It’s no surprise that party membership is dropping through the floor when members are treated as a gullible source of cash and a backdrop to politicians’ star turns. I can only imagine that party members are even more frustrated with these events than we non-members. The parties, all of them strapped for cash, seem to assume that as long as party conferences are generating revenue, then little else matters.
They’ve miscalculated in my view: next year, I will reduce my attendance again, and possibly miss one of the events completely (as some of my colleagues do already). I met lots of colleagues who were attending only fringe events outside of the ‘secure zone’, avoiding the need to buy a pass: I may join them. With no need to actually enter the hall and a dearth of MPs to talk to, there is little reason for the fringe conference not to separate itself entirely from the main event, saving everyone a fortune.
The political parties remind me (bear with me here) of the English Cricket Board. After the success of the Ashes campaign in 2005, they made a killing selling the rights to Sky. The downside being that, whilst I saw the 2005 England team paraded through packed London streets in front of hundreds of thousands of fans, a whole generation is growing up who can’t watch any of the matches. The money may help the game balance its books, but how will it inspire and involve the next generation of fans and players? At least the ECB is spending some of the money on grassroots cricket. The parties are spending the income from their closed-off, anodyne conferences on adverts.
There is no point in politicians bemoaning the lack of grassroots activism and public apathy, when they squander one of their main opportunities to do something about it. Here’s what I think they should do:
• Stop treating their members as, at best, customers, and at worst as TV camera fodder. Have real debates at party conferences. Party bosses need to remind themselves that the purpose of politics is not as a vehicle for their careers: your parties belong to your members. We all know that the Conservatives are divided over Europe, and Labour over the role of the unions. So stop having those debates through off the record briefings, and start having them on the floor of your main annual events. The media would gleefully report your divisions for a few days, but you’d start to resemble real political parties again, and people who felt passionately about the issues might just start to re-engage.
• Make party conference attendance compulsory for all MPs. MPs should be able to see the value in an opportunity to talk with their local members and with people who can give them expert briefings about the issues upon which they vote in parliament.
• Help us charities and professional bodies to organise events for councillors. Every area has a lead councillor for adult social care. I’d love to have an opportunity to talk to them all about Shared Lives and they would gain something from understanding more about the issues they deal with on a day to day basis, but at the moment, party conferences are not a place where that is likely to happen.
• Come out of the secure zone and talk to people. In these security-conscious days, the conferences are cocooned inside fences, police lines and airport style security checks. Most cities only notice the arrival of a political party in terms of diverted city centre traffic and screened-off ten foot fences. Perhaps this would be unnecessarily cruel to innocent children, but why aren’t politicians taking the opportunity of being far from London to organise events for local schools and community groups, who only ever see politicians on their TV screens?
Like every charity, we think very, very hard about how best to spend our money. Our members consistently tell us to tackle the near-invisibility of Shared Lives, and they certainly want us to ensure that politicians make the right call on decisions which could help – or inadvertently kill off – the sector. So for the time being, spending some time at party conferences feels like the right use of a modest amount of time and money. But the moment it doesn’t, I’ll stop going. And I suspect that at that moment, a large number of colleagues will make the same call.