What is the purpose of Party Conferences?

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An annual occurrence, the Conferences are meant to provide an opportunity for party activists and members to meet and discuss issues of policy, and to ratify various administrative matters.

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he post-summer political season got underway for real this week with the opening of the Liberal Democrat Conference, the first of those held by the three major parties. An annual occurrence, the Conferences are meant to provide an opportunity for party activists and members to meet and discuss issues of policy, and to ratify various administrative matters. Whether this is still (or should be) the function of these annual gatherings is a matter of some contention, and the Conservatives, for example, have suggested they might in future abandon the traditional Conference format and seek instead new ways to connect and engage with their activist base.


 

Having often attended party conferences in the past (although I shant be going to any this year), I understand why many might think these set piece Conferences are well past their sell by dates.

Much as grassroots activists – the local party members who deliver campaign literature and help to raise funds for the party – are both valuable and necessary to a political party, you don’t really want policy to be made by them. Although well intentioned and committed to the Party, local activists, by their nature, will tend to be more ideological in their views. So the Labour grassroots will be more left wing in their views than the Parliamentary leadership, as the Conservative grassroots will be more right wing than their leadership. The policies the rank and file party members might adopt may not be ones that would appeal to voters in general.

Conversely, the party leadership may try to take on its activist base and force them to accept policies that are controversial amongst the grassroots, so alienating them from the leadership. As I write this now, the Liberal Democrats have narrowly voted to endorse tax cuts as Party policy – something many members, and indeed some Lib Dem MPs, disagree with.

So the focus of the Conferences – particularly for Labour and the Conservatives – has moved away from deciding policy. Strip this function from the Conferences and you start to wonder why hold them at all.

What they do still provide is a way of securing focussed media attention on the Party for a few days (although I note that coverage of the Liberal Democrat conference is being ovcrshadowed both by stories of financial turbulence and continued speculation about challenges to Labour leader Gordon Brown). This level of exposure has its advantages – that the public get to hear your messages clearly – but the danger is that it may also expose tensions within the party. Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg is expected to get a rough ride this week – many party members do not believe he is doing a good job as their leader. Next week Gordon Brown will certainly come under enormous attack over how he has dragged the fortunes of Labour downward.

One final group to whom the Conferences remain important are the professional political industry – lobbyists and their clients who use the events as means of raising issues or building connections with politicians. In fact a good gauge of Party fortunes is how many commercial organisations apply to attend each Conference. This year there was a massive increase in this kind of application for the Conservative Conference, a clear indicator that David Cameron’s party is likely win the next election

I will blog on the speeches of Gordon Brown and David Cameron in each of the next two weeks. The week after that Parliament returns from its summer recess and the real business of politics begins again.

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