We need real party conferences again

Only conferences based on democracy and debate can re-engage the public.

My heart sinks with the start of the party conferences, places where nothing is decided by people who don’t really want to be there.

This feeling of dread is compounded by the fact it wasn’t always so. When I started attending Labour conferences as a young activist over thirty years ago (sadly I’ve missed just two since – I mean sad because it's only two), they were rip roaring affairs fuelled by hope and belief as much as drink. They were sites of contest and drama – elections and debates were to be won, history to be made. We spent the day organising votes, handing out our leaflets and daily bulletins.  The nights were spent on rudimentary computers and typesetting equipment producing the materials for the next day before going down to a printer in the basement of some dodgy B&B that churned away all night. We slept on floors and ate chips.

The retort, of course, is it was the era of splits and Trots that kept Labour out of office for a generation. Well, maybe. What we do know is that decades on the party machines are arm-locked, financially and culturally, to a model that closes down rather than opens up space. The passes, the stalls and the fundraising dinners – rake in the cash. And the remotest sign of debate, let alone division, is viewed as toxic and squashed. So they are as stage managed as the Kremlin on May Day.  The conferences themselves are no longer held in cheaper seaside venues like Blackpool or Bournemouth – only the more swanky city centers that have the hotels for the corporate hoards (of which I was one once) will now do. So any activist has to pay a small fortune to be bored to death, treated as wallpaper to a bleached and desiccated leader's speech that everyone forgets by the next day.  They are glorified trade shows held in airless, lifeless exhibition centres that might as well be discussing paint as politics.

Fewer people will attend this year's events than ever before. Fewer journalists because there is nothing to report, fewer activists because nothing really happens and even fewer lobbyists because most of the MPs have stopped going.  Is this the choice – death by entryism or death by boredom? Surely the real danger is that no one caress, not that a few care too much. The Trots have gone. People are not stupid – they know not every politician agrees with every one of their colleagues. They can’t be fooled. Political change is complicated and needs discussion and debate so a new and genuine consensus can be formed.  That can’t happen in a puppet show.

I was partially reminded of what could be, last Saturday in Bristol at the Green Party conference. Okay – they are not going to win a general election and they might not even add to the one seat they have because of our grotesquely unfair electoral system. But it was a proper conference – one built on democracy, debate, hope and belief.  It also witnessed a remarkable act of political leadership as Caroline Lucas voluntarily gave her leadership away to make herself and her party stronger and Britain, as a consequence, is blessed with another high quality female leader in Natalie Bennett. The political problem is how to square all that principle with electability.  Indeed, why must electability rest on never threatening to really change anything?

Back in the real world, people go to festivals of music, books, poetry and comedy.  They want ideas, they want to be social – they want to think and discuss beyond the realms of work and shopping. People thirst for spaces to be political and the last place they will find them is at the party conferences. Policy Review have helpfully published a white paper calling for the reimagining of party conferences.

It means the security barriers need to come down, not just in the streets around the conference centers but in the minds of a political class who fear debate, difference and democracy, rather than cherish it. Let the people and the ideas in – open up and out. Have votes. Why, for instance, isn’t the Labour conference being billed as the Forum for Responsible Capitalism? Give it a theme, let anyone come and discuss a skeleton paper and add their ideas and thoughts – you could build a manifesto in a week with a few flip charts and post-it notes. Why not? Because the parties don’t trust their own members, let alone the public.

But every leader's speech will call for a new politics and the public will spot the yawning gap between what they say and what they do – that’s, of course, if they bother to pay any attention at all.

Party conferences - "as stage managed as the Kremlin on May Day." Photograph: Getty Images.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones. 

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder