For the sake of the party

5 Sep 08
DAVID LIPSEY | The US party conventions spark typical British condescension towards our largest former colony. We regard them as exercises in vulgar razzmatazz compared with the deeply serious business done at our own party conferences.

The US party conventions spark typical British condescension towards our largest former colony. We regard them as exercises in vulgar razzmatazz compared with the deeply serious business done at our own party conferences.

But as the Liberal Democrats open the UK season on September 13, do we still have any reason to be snooty?

It takes a hurricane to blow the US conventions off the front pages. Obviously in a presidential election year, they take on an even greater significance. Today’s conventions often decide who will be in the White House tomorrow.

Of course, much of the activity this year is for the cameras, but in a political culture that finds it hard to engage the people, this is not to be sniffed at.

Critics complain of lack of content. But I would wager there was more hard policy in Barack Obama’s convention speech than there will be in Gordon Brown’s address to the Labour Party conference.

The Liberal Democrat conference traditionally has a good deal of content. LibDems naturally focus on bright wheezes for every issue — that is what third parties are for. So the conference has a myriad of debates that are said to decide what the party stands for.

With activists so important to the LibDems, their relative influence compared with the smallish bunch of parliamentarians is unsurprising. But you may be sure that the policies they adopt will not be much heard of in the year ahead (unless, that is, they vote to provide free heroin on the National Health or ban cars to combat global warming, in which case we shall hear of little else from the big two parties).

The Labour conference is a pale shadow of its former self. Its pretensions to dictate the policy of the party in Parliament were always hollow, though nonetheless real for its activists on the Left. The assertion of the supremacy of conference decisions was part of the 1980s Bennite agenda; nevertheless conference decisions mattered.

Hugh Gaitskell had to pledge himself to ‘fight, fight and fight again’ to reverse the party’s vote for unilateral nuclear disarmament; a Labour leader today would simply ignore it. And what would have happened had Denis Healey not squeaked ahead of Tony Benn in the famous deputy leadership contest of 1980? A split, electoral disaster and perhaps a replacement of Labour as the second party.

Nowadays, the focus has moved to carefully managed meetings of the party’s policy forum; and there seem to be a dozen lobbyists at the conference for every genuine delegate.

The Tory conference never had pretensions, as the leadership has traditionally preferred the advice of its valets to those of its conference. The gathering’s role has been that of a more discreet version of the US conventions, a rally rather than a deliberative assembly.

The mass media now dedicate less attention to British conferences. Even the BBC no longer offers around-the-clock coverage, as in recent years this would have served only insomniacs trying to catch up by day.

Curiously enough, the role of British conferences — insofar as they have a role — has gradually drawn nearer to that of their US counterparts, namely the anointing and testing of a leader.

It was a Conservative conference where ‘quiet man’ Iain Duncan-Smith was weighed up by the delegates and found wanting. He was out within weeks. And at another Conservative conference, David Cameron came from nowhere to become leader because he could speak without notes and David Davis couldn’t.

It was at a LibDem conference that poor Ming Campbell’s inadequacies were exposed to a party audience, with the thumbs down following. And this year, Brown’s speech to Labour is already being billed as ‘make or break’, as Tony Blair’s used to be from time to time.

Certainly, if Brown flops at Manchester, a leadership challenge will become inevitable. But in terms of policy rather than personalities, this year’s British conferences will decide nothing of importance. Their impact on public opinion will probably be next to nil.

Why don’t the parties just give them up? With ideology now history in British parties, part of the answer is sociological. If people are to be persuaded to give their time and money to parties then a giant get-together is just what is needed.

Money also comes into it. Lobbyists know that conference is their opportunity of the year to get to the real players, without private offices and political advisers blocking their path. They are prepared to pay handsomely for the privilege — and the parties know it.

Without the revenue from conferences, British political parties, especially Labour, would be even more impoverished than they are. The avoidance of bankruptcy is a powerful enough motive to be worth a few days of their precious time.

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