When most people start to think about what to pack for their summer holidays, politicians turn their thoughts to packing of a different nature for the conference season. Not shorts and T-shirt, mind, but how to pack the agenda with victories for the leadership, and sufficiently controversial debates for media interest.
Managing a good conference within a democratic party is always a tall order. Over-manage and the media whinge about being bored and start to fill the vacuum with grumblings about the leadership. Under-manage and every day can be a leadership defeat in glaring floodlit headlines.
In the Liberal Democrats there is a Federal Conference Committee, elected by conference delegates. They do well given the competing demands they face: the need for great debates and decisions on critical issues versus the biggest annual curtain raiser on the Party. When working as Director of Communications for the Liberal Democrats the Conference Committee meeting that set the agenda was one of my longest but most essential Saturdays of the year. The decisions they took could make us look relevant and cutting edge or a laughing stock. Also crucial are the decisions about which battles to have in the media. Internal ones often have a danger of looking like a naval gazing exercise.
Leading politicians in the Liberal Democrats can never take conference for granted and they know it. When a close vote is due, no-one in the media or the Party are able to accurately predict the outcome. There is normally a moment when someone speaks and you know the way conference is going to vote. That was certainly the case with the Health debate at the Spring Conference. When Shirley Williams spoke, you knew which way the vote was going.
There are the “darlings” of the conference, who can be highly persuasive. Over the years Simon Hughes has dominated that slot, though Tim Farron is the new kid on that block.
So a certain conference outcome, on health, on the economy, on post offices needs a healthy respect for the conference delegates, and a strong understanding of the party. And if you are going to lose a debate, at least go down believing in what you are doing.
Which is why I am amazed that Ed Miliband has put his head on the block regarding the ditching of shadow cabinet elections. Miliband is right on the issue, as Ben Brogan’s blog says here. But pitching a battle on a largely internal managerial issue for his autumn conference is an extraordinary decision. This move – dribbled out yesterday evening in an attempt at an exclusive for the Guardian which didn’t quite work – looks to have all the charactieristics of a leadership defeat – and over what? Not a fundamental change in ownership by the state, but the way an internal election works.
It is hard to see how this can be anything other than a test moment for Ed Miliband’s leadership. But surely if he was going to take on his party and ask them to back him or sack him, wouldn’t this have been the moment to have an answer on the structural deficit and Labour’s answer on the economy? Given that even those members and MPs who supported Ed Miliband are having second thoughts, is this the right moment to say “sack me or back me” over a party matter?
As we prepare for our conference season, it strikes me that Ed Miliband’s packing leaves a lot to be desired. If I were him this year, I would have a decent test of leadership about fundamental party policies that affect people. But in the absence of that battle and in the words of the Godfather, I would “leave the gun and take the cannolis”.