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What’s the point of party conferences?

How they work and what happens at them.

Party conferences are often referred to as the Glastonbury of the political calendar. Sad though it sounds, there is some truth in it. A lot of people go, and they’re very messy. (Plus, to many Westminster types, they’re an exciting social occasion – and far away on the train.)

Every UK party has an annual autumn conference, where their members and politicians go to discuss the state of the party and its future. Each one works slightly differently, but all are covered by the media and result in policy announcements (and, with any luck, massive rows).

But what actually happens at these dry looking events in wet seaside towns, and why should you care?

Location

Historically, party conferences have been held in seaside towns – for cheap accommodation. While Brighton and Bournemouth are still part of the circuit, big cities like Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool and Glasgow are the main hosts. They’re not in London because, well, every other political event is in London and party conferences are ostensibly for party members to get a chance to meet and listen to their politicians unfiltered by the press.

This leads to enjoyable scenarios, like Conservative party conference clashing with Birmingham uni freshers’ week, when you see 18-year-olds in torn Carnage t-shirts and old bald men in lanyards in equal measure queuing up for the same clubnights.

Delegates

Party conference delegates are ordinary party members who pay to attend. They receive a pass and access to all the speeches by politicians in the main auditorium, as well as the conference fringe (see below). Delegates get to vote on policy motions they put forward in most parties’ conferences – apart from at Tory and Ukip conference, where they mainly bray or boo to register their mood.

Labour, Tory, Lib Dem and SNP conferences last for longer than a weekend, so many working party members have to take days off to attend the full conference programme. Green and Ukip party conferences are usually over a weekend.

Lobbyists

Lobbyists – ie. everyone with an agenda from the European Azerbaijan Society to the Campaign for Real Ale – send their public affairs teams to most party conferences, in the hope that their stands in the exhibition space (see below) or drinks receptions, dinners and panels that they put on will influence policy-makers.

Journalists

Journalists descend on party conferences to cover everything that happens on stage and behind-the-scenes. They all get conference flu.

Speeches

Most of a party’s key players get to make a speech in the main auditorium. This is good for the members, because they are given the chance to see their beloved politicians speak in the flesh, rather than through a TV clip or print interviews. It’s also good for the politicians, because if they have career aspirations, these are the people who will be voting for them in leadership contests to come.

The conference stage can also be a place where rising stars are born. In 1977, a 16-year-old William Hague famously spoke at Conservative party conference, and was touted as one-to-watch from then on.

Motions

Delegates at all party conferences but Tory and Ukip get the chance to put motions forward, and vote on policy decisions and rule changes. It works differently at different conferences, but for Labour, delegates get to vote on motions proposed by constituency parties and unions, and policy proposals formulated by the party’s National Policy Forum.

Exhibition space

A big echoey room full of stalls and stands set up by all the interest groups attending conference. Similar from conference to conference, except Labour has unions where the Tories have tweed merchants (no, really).

All the free stress balls and biros a girl could ask for. But at what cost?

Fringes

The conference fringe is a schedule of panels, debates, speeches, drinks receptions and parties that are not part of the official conference agenda. They are organised by various interest groups and publications. These are mainly significant for allowing outspoken MPs a chance to air their views, and exhausted journalists and delegates to have a sandwich.

Some are within the secure zone – the closed-off party conference area only accessible to those with a pass – and some are scattered around the city or town where party conference is taking place.

Momentum now has its own big fringe in the same city and on the same dates as Labour conference called The World Transformed. This will be its second year.

Parties

Conference is a little like freshers’ week but with old men. Everyone’s rushing their work and going to as many drinks events and meeting as many people as possible. There are parties – some more exclusive than others – that happen within and without the secure zone, which are also a big source of news and hangovers for the journalists who prowl the circuit. Ed Balls can often be seen dancing, which, for some reason, everyone still thinks is hilarious.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Can a “Momentum moment” revive the fortunes of Germany’s SPD?

Support for the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, behind the far right Alternative for Germany.

Germany has crossed a line: for the first time in the history of the federal republic, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, polling just 15.5 per cent – half a point behind the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The poll was published on the day the SPD membership received their postal ballots on whether to enter another grand coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, and inflamed debate further.

For the grassroots coalition opposed to the so-called GroKo (Große Koalition) the poll is proof that the SPD needs a fundamental change of political direction. Within the two grand coalitions of recent years, the SPD has completely lost its political profile. The beneficiary each time has been the far right. Yet another GroKo seems likely to usher in the end of the SPD as a Volkspartei (people’s party). Taking its place would be the AfD, a deeply disturbing prospect.

For the SPD leadership, the results are proof that the party must enter a grand coalition. Failure to do so would likely mean new elections (though this is disputed, as a minority government is also a possibility) and an SPD wipeout. The SPD’s biggest problem, they argue, is not a bad political programme, but a failure to sell the SPD’s achievements to the public.

But is it? The richest 45 Germans now own as much as the bottom 50 per cent. According to French economist Thomas Piketty, German income inequality has now sunk to levels last seen in 1913. Perhaps most shockingly, the nominally left-wing SPD has been in government for 16 of the last 20 years. Whatever it has been doing in office, it hasn’t been nearly enough. And there’s nothing in the present coalition agreement that will change that. Indeed, throughout Europe, mainstream left parties such as the SPD have stuck to their economically centrist programmes and are facing electoral meltdown as a result.

The growing popular anger at the status quo is being channeled almost exclusively into the AfD, which presents itself as the alternative to the political mainstream. Rather than blame the massive redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top, however, the AfD points the finger at the weakest in society: immigrants and refugees.

So how can the SPD turn things around by the next federal election in 2021? 

The party leadership has promised a complete programme of political renewal, as it does after every disappointing result. But even if this promise were kept this time, how credible is political renewal within a government that stands for more of the same? The SPD would be given the finance ministry, but would be wedded to an austerity policy of no new public debt, and no increased tax rises on the rich. 

SPD members are repeatedly exhorted to separate questions of programmatic renewal from the debate about who leads the party. But these questions are fundamentally linked. The SPD’s problem is not its failure to make left-wing promises, but the failure of its leaders to actually keep them, once in office.

The clear counter-example for genuine political renewal and credibility is, of course, Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. In spite of all dire warnings that a left-wing programme was a sure-fire vote-loser, Labour’s massively expanded membership – and later electorate – responded with an unprecedented and unforeseen enthusiasm. 

A radical democratic change on the lines of Labour would save the SPD party from oblivion, and save Germany from an ascendent AfD. But it would come at the cost of the careers of the SPD leadership. Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, they are fighting it tooth and nail.

Having promised an “especially fair” debate, the conflict over the GroKo has suddenly surged to become Germany’s Momentum moment - and the SPD leadership is doing everything it can to quash the debate. Party communications and so-called “dialogue events” pump out a pro-GroKo line. The ballots sent out this week came accompanied by an authoritative three-page letter on why members should vote for the grand coalition.

Whether such desperate measures have worked or not will be revealed when the voting result is announced on 4 March 2018. Online, sentiment is overwhelmingly against the GroKo. But many SPD members (average age is 60) are not online, and are thought to be more conservative.

Whatever the outcome, the debate isn’t going away. If members can decide on a grand coalition, why not on the leadership itself? A direct election for the leadership would democratically reconnect the SPD with its grassroots.

Unless the growth in inequality is turned around, a fundamental reboot of the SPD is ultimately inevitable. Another grand coalition, however, will postpone this process even further. And what will be left of the SPD by then?

Steve Hudson is a Momentum activist and a member of both Labour and the SPD. He lives in Germany, where he chairs the NoGroKo eV campaign group.