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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » Conference Season Is Fun-and-Games Politics With Serious Purpose

Conference Season Is Fun-and-Games Politics With Serious Purpose


Autumn party conferences are the only show in town for devotees, managers and media. But do they do any real political good, make any lasting impression?

All British political parties, great and small, hold gatherings of their party faithful at some point during the year. Attenders are treated to a succession of debates in conference on substantial issues, the party’s great and good in the flesh, fringe meetings, cabals, sideshows and personalities and opportunists (media and political) working the rooms.

It’s a somewhat rarefied atmosphere, cocooned within a ring of high-level security. The rest of the country (starting with locals inconvenienced by security) matter only when they and their opinions are suddenly remembered.

Such events allow leaders and would-be leaders to grandstand, network and feel involved. They can make or break careers and sometimes, if they’re lucky, give the media a feeding frenzy of scandal, gossip and power-play.

Highlights and Low Points

Political reporters have a love-hate relationship with conferences, affecting a weary seen-it-all cynicism and exhaustion as they swap the Westminster village for conference centres around Britain. In reality, among the press corp, the slightly old-fashioned conference models are legendary. Late night plots and shows of unity are food and drink (quite literally) to the hacks.

Leaving aside the minority, Welsh, Scottish, Irish parties and the TUC, previous main party highlights have included Premier Margaret Thatcher addressing the Conservative Conference at Brighton in 1984 hours after an IRA bomb wrecked the Grand Hotel and killed five. 16 year old William Hague addressed the Party in 1977 and made quite an impression.

Labour memories include leader, Neil Kinnock’s 1985 ‘thumper’ speech attacking Militant Tendency within his party, and falling over on the beach at Brighton; Tony Blair’s 2001 after 9/11, when he said, dramatically, ‘the kaleidoscope has been shaken’ and most of John Prescott’s interventions.

In the early heady days of the Social Democrat Party (out of which today’s Lib-Dems grew), David Steel famously told his 1981 conference to ‘go back to your constituencies and prepare for government’, which later became a stick to beat them with.

Liberal Democrats

Normally the Lib-Dems kick off the season. They ‘exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community’. This year it’s ICC Birmingham, 18-21 September; their second conference since they went into Coalition Government in May 2010.

What amazed many conference attenders in 2010 was that they were listening to ministers of their own colour; Liberals have not been in government through winning an election since 1910.

They did have some small say in the Lib-Lab Pact, 1977-78. They were accused by opponents as propping up a dying Labour government. In 2010 they entered a partnership in exchange for government jobs. Still, not all members are happy, as tensions over policies surface.

8,000 delegates expect to see Deputy PM NIck Clegg on show, with stars of the party firmament, Danny Alexander at the front of Coalition austerity/taxing/spending as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and Business Secretary Vince Cable who has made controversy an art. That he’s still in office amazes friends and foes alike.

It’s been a tough year for Clegg, with questions over his leadership, a poor sixth place in the Oldham and Saddleworth by-election in January, heavy defeat in both May’s council elections/Alternative Vote referendum and Energy Secretary Chris Huhne’s personal problems over alleged speeding offences.

Their handling of a popular wave of opposition to health reforms and apparently no involvement in the News International phone hacking scandal, mean they may have turned a corner. Members want reassurance about coalition that they win arguments within government over economic direction.

The Labour Party

Labour are at the ACC in Liverpool, for the first time, 25-28 September and expect 11,000 delegates plus the Shadow Cabinet. They describe it as an opportunity for ‘delegates from Constituency Labour Parties, affiliated trade unions and socialist societies to take part in debates to shape Labour’s vision for Britain’.

Since his election as party leader a year ago, this is Ed Miliband’s first chance to show his party (in the hall and at home) and the chattering media, how far he’s made the job his own. Many felt he failed to make the most of unpopular Government policies (spending, health, education) or drive a wedge between the Coalition partners.

Labour did badly in the English council and Scottish Parliamentary elections. Miliband had some success over the phone hacking scandal, though former Labour leaders’ involvement could come back to haunt him. His conference headline speech will need to show the party machine was right to choose him over his brother, David.

Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls will be looking to entrench his leader-in-waiting mantle, while a selection of young guns will be doing the rounds, the fringe stalls, the meetings, the media chats. The inevitable years of political wilderness after a defeat are just starting, but if the Coalition fails, they will all greet an unrepeatable opportunity.

The Conservatives

More than 13,500 representatives (not delegates, as votes are not taken on binding policy) will meet at Manchester Central, 2-5 October, described as ‘a great Conference – your chance to hear how Conservative Ministers are helping to build a better future and how we are delivering in government’.

On this occasion there are advantages to going last. The other leaders’ speeches will have been judged, opinion polls will have revealed voters’ perceptions. Prime Minister David Cameron’s faced difficulties yet to run their course (phone hacking, News International and wisdom in appointing advisers) in the past year, while austerity measures, Europe, military involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, health and education reforms could go either way in terms of his ratings.

He’ll use natural authority, growing experience of office and that Conservatives plan to win the next election outright. To help that, Chancellor George Osborne will strike a difficult balance between deficit reduction and kick-starting economic investment/growth. London Mayor Boris Johnson plays to the gallery on these occasions, is camera-friendly and will be a popular pundit, especially if he’s at all critical.

How all that goes down in the world beyond conference, together with how long strains within the Coalition can be contained, will determine whether the next General Election is in 2015, or earlier.

First published on Suite 101, 8 September 2011, and republished now ahead of another year of party conferences, but making no changes in terms of people in particular roles which have changed over the past year.

Image: Cameron Will Give Authoritative Tory Address – World Economic Forum

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