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 and author of the book All Consuming.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: a test of competence as well as compassion

George Osborne's chickens may be coming home to roost.

The debate will be political and polarized, as you’d expect, when the Chancellor sets out the results of the Spending Review tomorrow and how his £20bn of savings will be realised. However my suspicion is that while many followers of the Westminster's circus are debating what it all means for compassionate or compassionless conservatism, the public will be more interested in a more straightforward question: one of competence. 

Strip away the hyperbole and the election in May was won on an assessment of which party was the more competent to govern. A huge part of the public’s judgment in this regard was to trust the track record of the Conservatives in balancing the books and that the £20bn in departmental savings earmarked was a reasonable and responsible ambition. 

This is the question in point because what the public did not endorse explicitly was significant change in the size and role of the state. The argument was made and won for a budget surplus, not necessarily for its consequences. As Paul Johnson of the IFS has been at pains to say after every recent budget.

We should acknowledge that one of the reasons the Chancellor does have the public’s confidence is that the cuts to public services so far have not been as damaging as many opponents predicted. The NHS is under-strain, but has not broken. Hard pushed local government leaders have managed to shield social care from the worst of the changes, and the majority of police officers lost were in the back-office not on the beat. So when pollsters ask the public whether they have noticed the effects of austerity, most say they haven't. 

Understanding what the implications are of further large reductions in areas in the firing line such as police forces or local government is hard to do. So the government has told the public "trust us". Now we are going to find out how well that trust was placed. The point is this though - if the public haven't yet felt the full affects of a smaller state they may not be so tolerant it if they do. That brings us to the Chancellor’s real test. The easy cuts have surely been made, after the long years of spending increases prior to 2010 you would expect the system to be able to tighten its belt. But with five years of austerity under that belt there is a risk that the additional cuts could push services too far. 

The public were told that £20bn of saving could be achieved without the kind of pain that will be felt if social care for the elderly really starts to fall over, if police officers become significantly more scarce, or if the NHS does need much more than the promised £8bn (as many believe it will). On this point they have trusted the Chancellor to understand the implications of what he is promising. So if the policy choices in the Spending Review turn out to show that he did not, it will be the Government's competence as much as its compassion that will concern the public.


Steve O'Neill was deputy head of policy for the Liberal Democrats until the election.