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.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.