Tim Montgomerie on Conservative Home has pointed out that not many party members go to conference any more. The main parties now stage big annual events for the corporate guests, lobbyists and media. They provide a platform for Ministers and Shadow Ministers to make their announcements. Leaders heave a sigh of relief if they get through the week without major rows or embarrassments.
Tim thinks the main problem is the high cost of attending, travel, acccommodation, food and drink. He is considering setting up an alternative cheaper conference which more members might want to go to.
I think there is another issue apart from cost. The issue is can anything useful be debated and sorted out at a conference? I suspect people are not merely reacting badly to the expense. I think it is also a reaction to the lack of debate, passion, disagreement. Activists join political parties because they are democrats who are interested in political ideas, in practical solutions, in what government local and national does. They want to able to talk about it, learn more about it, and sometimes disagree about it. They used to come to be convinced by leaders that they are doing the right things, or to explain to leaders what else they would rather they did.
The Conservative conference used to have some great debates. The organisers let difficult rebels speak from the floor, to test out Ministers or Shadow Ministers. The platform had to face votes they might lose, arguments they might find uncomfortable, truths they might not recognise. It was good for them, and good for the party. We used to have a balloted motion, so the audience could choose something they wanted to talk about. I remember having to reply to one of them, and was pleased to do so. I don’t remember the wheels coming off as a result! The platform usually won in the end, and often did persuade people they were right. The possibility that they might not win, that they had to woo their audiences, made it much more exciting and newsworthy.
Today party conferences are organised by media experts. They want to control the message, stop dissent, control the camera angles and the story. They think that by stopping major arguments within the party from appearing in the main conference hall they can disguise disagreements from the media and secure a good press.
As a result the media spend most of their time trying to find disagreements in fringe meetings, in asides, in unscripted comments by the unwary, or scripted comments by the few public rebels. Sometimes the media is fed a disagreement by the spin doctors, on the grounds they would rather have one they control or suits their purpose than one they do not. Yet if a party is split – as Labour was between Blairites and Brownites – we will be told all about it, however sanitised the main hall and “debates”. The high spin does not ultimately work. It just adds to the distrust of politics and politicians.
Let’s take the last Conservative conference. Mr Osborne announced an important change of policy. He said that in future the UK would not go faster than the rest of the EU in raising energy and carbon dioxide charges. He accepted that it was neither green nor compatible with a UK industrial led recovery to price our manufacturers out of making things here.
Why didn’t they stage a debate on the whole question of global warming? There are members within the party who disagree that the world is warming. There are people who think it maybe, but doubt it is brought about by man made CO2. There are those who accept the theory, but think taxing ourselves too much to stop it here merely exports industry to competitor economies who take advantage. There are then Lawsonites, who think that even if it is all true, it is cheaper to tackle the symptoms as they arise.
Wouldn’t we have done the nation a service to have a big debate on this, and to hear the Ministers put their case and seek to convince their party that the revised government approach is the right one? Wouldn’t that have given Mr Osborne more media interest for his important change of stance? Wouldn’t it have shown that argument within the party is worthwhile, as the government has changed its position? Would many want the government to change it more?
It would also have been a good idea to have an open discussion of the Euro crisis. That was always going to be the main news story during conference week come what may. As the UK government is semi detached from the Euro problems it could have been a good opportunity to hear a wide range of views from the floor on how Euroland might fix itself, and what the UK should if anything do and say about it. Isn’t it time to nail the old Labour lie that the Conservatives are too split on the EU to dare talk about it? Mightn’t such a debate not have shown great interest, expertise and positive proposals for Euroland, as well as pointing the way to a new and better relationship for the UK with the emerging single economy.
To esnure balance and to remind people that the Conservative party is a broad church, a general debate on freedom, and what more the government should to to promote it, from civil liberties to a stronger democracy would have rounded it off well. The new nature of the conference would have reinforced the point. This would be the conference of a thoroughly modern party that thinks the old centralised top down solutions are failing.
I suspect more would come to such a conference, especially if it took place over a week-end and offered lower prices for attending if you are a working member.