Let me start with a question. Do the annual party conferences serve a useful purpose? Yes they do. And I’ll explain why. But their impact on the democratic process is nothing like it once was. The reason is simple: presentation now takes precedence over policy.
Instead of being the forum which used to have a significant role in determining the polices a party might adopt, the conferences have now become a showcase at which to present the party and its leadership in the best possible light, more like an American political convention.
Labour Party conferences once played a vital role in influencing issues like taxation, employment law or long-running controversies such as nuclear disarmament. Conservative and Liberal Democrat conferences also made a significant contribution to their decision-making processes but today they’re more about news management than giving the membership a say in deciding what the policies will be.
Back in the 1970s and 80s I was usually in the advance guard. My job during the weekend opening up a Labour conference was always to discover what the rank and file were thinking. As a journalist from Westminster, I was coming face to face with delegates from constituencies across the country, from the north east, south west, Scotland and Wales. Local constituency parties had probably tabled their own resolutions; they’d each be casting their votes alongside the block votes of the big trade unions.
Saturday was always “compositing” day, the day the leadership often struggled without success to draft a composite motion intended to take the heat out of a critical debate. The campaign to get a national minimum wage began just this way in the early 1980s, starting off in trade union branches. It finally became law under Tony Blair. New Labour claimed the credit but legislation to protect the low paid was the culmination of a political argument which had its roots in a process of policy formation which often worked from the bottom up and which, I think, to their shame, Mr Blair and the party hierarchy subsequently all but dismantled.
Admittedly annual conferences didn’t always do Labour a favour. The exercise of the block vote, a single union leader holding up a card vote representing a million or more union members, became a stain on the democratic process; especially the year one union general secretary defied his delegation and cast his vote “against” rather than in “favour” as he’d been directed, a deception which cost him his job.
Unforgettable dramas come flooding back. The year Neil Kinnock electrified the Labour conference at Bournemouth when he took on Derek Hatton, the Merseyside leader of the Militant Tendency.
Conservative party conferences too haven’t been without their dramatic moments. In 1975 Margaret Thatcher’s bid for the Tory leadership included a visit to a Young Conservatives’ conference at Eastbourne. I remember recording my interview, sitting right beside her on a settee at the conference hotel, a degree of familiarity which wouldn’t be repeated once she got to Downing Street. After defeating Ted Heath, her very first speech as party leader was an electrifying occasion in the Winter Gardens at Blackpool. During a seemingly never-ending standing ovation there were tears of joy on the faces of the women who’d fought so hard to get her elected.
But the Thatcher decade ended with her own tears. The 1990 Tory conference had played its part in those agonising final months. Michael Heseltine was then the darling of the conference fringe. And within weeks he’d challenged Mrs Thatcher for the leadership. By the mid 1990s, the Conservatives’ annual gatherings, previously the most polished event on the conference circuit, began to fall apart. As John Major’s government fractured in the face of the revolt by Euro-sceptics, Michael Portillo, then defence secretary, began strutting his stuff with his mis-judged SAS-style conference battle cry “Who Dares,Wins.”
My fondest memories of Liberal Party conferences date back to the years well before their merger with SDP and the emergence of today’s Liberal Democrats. In the mid 1970s David Steel led only a dozen or so Liberal MPs; they were the real heroes at party conference, especially the larger than life figure of the redoubtable Cyril Smith, who was a captivating speaker on the fringe.
Conferences can be a make or break moment. In 1978 I was at the TUC Congress in Brighton when the Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan failed to call an autumn election, a mistake which I think was repeated by Gordon Brown at Labour’s 2007 conference. A snap general election that autumn might have given Mr Brown, newly-installed as Prime Minister, the personal mandate he needed so badly.
I’m answering my own question: party conferences still have a vital role in the 24-7 world of a constantly-updated news agenda. No political party can afford to ignore the opportunity they provide to dominate the headlines.
This week Nick Clegg has tried too hard, pre-empting his own party conference by saying sorry for tuition fees and ending up as a comic figure on You Tube. Ed Miliband is already under pressure with Ed Balls to say what Labour would do in government. And David Cameron knows he has to use the Conservatives’ conference to reassure the country that the coalition’s policies will lead to an economic recovery. It’s why a party conference can still be a make or break event.