Why do we still watch party conferences in the age of paid TV?

In these carefully stage-managed days, voices of dissent are removed from anywhere near a television

Party conferences aren't what they once were. I say this from the point of view of someone who's never been to one.

Well, that's not completely true. I was meant to attend a Labour youth conference in Brighton back in the 1990s, but, due to an unfortunate collision of circumstances, I never made it into the conference hall and spent most of my time vomiting in a hotel room. A lucky escape, you might quip. But there it is. That's where my political career began and ended.

Since that's as close as I've been in the flesh, I've only ever witnessed these rather odd events on television, and not really through choice. By all means start up the crackly 78 of Dvorak's Largo to accompany this, but I remember a time when they were all there was to watch. It was Pages from Ceefax versus nothing on ITV, versus some sweaty-pated straggle-haired bletherer mewling about how he was going to "move". "Move where?" you grumbled at the television. But there was no answer.

Now, we have channels. We have choice. No longer are the sickly children of Britain forced to sit at home and endure endless empty hours of
wondering why all those beige-looking elderly people are applauding such anodyne speeches as if it's England winning the World Cup combined with a free mug of Ovaltine -- which is all to the good for the lucky blighters of today in so many ways, of course, but I can't help thinking that a certain rite of passage has disappeared.

Yes. As a young lad, frequently stuck at home full of snot or some horrible disease that wouldn't shift, I'd have to shiver under a blanket and try to understand what was going on at these rather tired events held in musty seaside resorts. Why did they have traffic lights in front of them? Would a trapdoor open when it went red? Who was this Michael Heseltine? Why did he have such extravagant eyebrows? Why was everyone laughing, when he wasn't saying anything funny?

This was the bleakest, most awful stage show in the world, a pantomime with jokes by Samuel Beckett, a cavalcade of dullards saying nothing of
any interest, and being cheered to the rafters. But at least you could rely on Labour for laughs: Kinnock toppling into the sea like a great big tit in a trance, then trying and failing to make a big joke out of it, for example. "Militant" folk popping up and shouting while someone else was trying to speak. Meet The Challenge, Make The Change. The proud use of "comrades". Ah, yes. Dozy old Labour, sleepwalking into another landslide defeat. Well, perhaps the defeats are returning, if nothing else.

Try as I might yesterday morning, I couldn't avoid Ed Balls -- on the radio, on breakfast TV, clinging onto a banister on Daybreak as if a strong
gust of wind might carry him away like Mary Poppins at any moment. He was everywhere. "This is what I'm going to say later," was the essence
of it. "Then why not say it later and do us all a favour," many sleep-deprived folk probably wondered on a Monday morning.

Though we all know why. It's not about the conference anymore. No-one's watching that, apart from die-hard political types, most of whom, as we
know, have already made their minds up. It's all about the news, and trying to persuade ordinary folk like you and I in between tales of disaster and tragedy from around the world.

In these carefully stage-managed days, Walter Wolfgang notwithstanding, voices of dissent are carefully removed from anywhere near a television
camera, and all you get is a very long-form version of tonight's soundbite. Often, the big three parties, no matter how catastrophic things actually are, attempt to portray an unflappable veneer a little like Sid James in Carry On Up The Khyber, and we, the punters are like Peter Butterworth, pondering the importance of strawberry mousse when the palace is collapsing around our ears.

Ah well. I suppose we should enjoy the small pleasures of the Labour offering while we can. Soon it'll be the triumphant Tories, roaring with
delight at every mention of the mess they inherited, the tough choices that need to be made, the hard road ahead, the broken society that needs
to be fixed... no-one will be watching that, either. But no-one needs to be. They're in power.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.