Friday, 28 September 2012

28 September 2012

I can't make up my mind: am I relieved -- or disappointed -- that I won't be at any of the political party conferences this year?

With just a few exceptions, I've been to at least one of them pretty much every year for the past two decades -- so it does feel a bit odd watching them on the box like everyone else. (Everyone is glued to them, aren't they?)

On the one hand, I won't much miss the windswept, rain-lashed joys of Brighton, Bournemouth and Blackpool (latterly joined by Manchester and Birmingham, which have a better class of hotel but no storm-flecked seas). Nor will I miss the cold fried eggs at breakfast, nor the excessive amounts of instant coffee drunk from polystyrene cups.

But I will miss -- am missing -- the sense of drama that accompanies the party leaders' speeches every year, and the urgent gossip in the bars as activists and aficionados exchange confidences and hatch plots.

Does any of it matter? Perhaps less than it did, simply because party managers have got so much better at managing, and their media advisers have taught them that conferences work best these days as product launches rather than as a genuine forum for debate.

I realised just how much had changed a couple of years ago, when I went to a lunch-time fringe meeting to hear what I thought might be an interesting discussion about future British defence policy. But instead of finding myself among party activists, I soon discovered that every other person in the room was either from a campaign group or was a lobbyist from a defence company. Not a paid-up party member to be seen.

Mind you, even orchestrated party rallies have their uses. Watch who's called to speak -- and who isn't -- and listen carefully for the core messages when the leader does The Speech. There's still a lot to be learned, even if it's probably true that most of it can be gleaned just as satisfactorily by watching it on TV.

Will you permit me a brief stroll down memory lane? To those drama-packed days of the early 1990s, when the then Labour leader John Smith pushed through OMOV (one member, one vote) to clip the wings of the trades union barons. And when John Prescott delivered an utterly incoherent, barn-storming speech in which, as was remarked at the time, you couldn't understand a word he said, but you knew exactly what he meant.

And to Iain Duncan Smith in Bournemouth in 2002, when he tried to turn his weakness into strength with the much derided line: "Do not under-estimate the determination of a quiet man." A year later, in Blackpool, he tried again: "The quiet man is here to stay, and he's turning up the volume." Weeks later, he was gone.

The early Blair years were full of conference drama as the new leader remodelled his party -- reinvented it, some said -- with a series of speeches which left some activists bewildered and others bewitched. (I thought I detected a bit of Blair in Nick Clegg at the Lib Dem conference in Brighton this week -- the same ability to tell the party faithful what they don't want to hear, yet somehow get them to cheer nonetheless.)

Party policy doesn't get made at conferences any more, and party splits are kept carefully hidden from view. Can you imagine a senior party figure storming off the platform in protest against his leader's speech, as Labour's Eric Heffer did in 1985, when Neil Kinnock went on the attack against Militant?

So yes, I accept that the conferences are not what they were. (The same is true in the US, incidentally, where party conventions used to be the place where, every four years, party activists chose whom they wanted as their presidential candidate. These days, the choice is made in primary elections, so much of the drama has gone.) 

And while we're on the subject of the US, that's where I'll be heading next week. So as Labour meet in Manchester, and the Tories gather in Birmingham a week later, I'll be on the other side of the Atlantic. Listen out for a special programme next Thursday, and another one on Monday 15 October, with, I hope, plenty of other reports along the way.

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