We’re in the middle of conference season right now, and following the ever-so-slightly controversial resolutions passed at the Labour and Liberal Democrat gatherings, there is perhaps weight to the idea that party conferences are an outdated concept. There are some who voice concerns that conferences exist as echo chambers, where the party members embody a certain kind of zealotry — putting party policies and politicians on a pedestal, stifling debate and placing party before country.
As I prepare to go to my own party conference in October, I’m inclined to disagree with this. From my own experiences, this has never been a problem. There are always a few entertaining characters who pop up and take any excuse to speak – at length – about anything and everything that enters their minds, but that’s no bad thing. Not every debate can be about a revolutionary new policy. We need something to break up the flow.
In the Guardian, Suzanne Moore provides a scathing view of party conferences (24 September 2019), claiming they are a sign of “all that is wrong with politics”. She’s not totally wrong… Sure, the food is crap, the halls aren’t big enough, and aye, who doesn’t love “a great discussion about how awful everyone else is”? What she perhaps has not realised is that a conference holds a specific kind of appeal for a specific kind of person – activists. Those involved in the party, putting their blood, sweat and tears into what they believe will provide a better future for the country. Moore attends these events as a journalist, how could she understand the sense of partnership, community and hope that the rest of us feel while she mopes around in T.K. Maxx? They wouldn’t be so well attended if we didn’t enjoy them.
I’ve attended my fair share of conferences and always have a fantastic time. Between attending the fringe events, hearing presentations on the most current issues, proposals for the future, new merchandise, the much-loved conference karaoke (you can’t beat it) and the sheer, unholy amount of free tat – there is a lot to love about conferences.
It is always a very positive and hopeful occasion. Sure, they can be boring at times, and, unless you’re a delegate or interested in what is going on, they frequently are (though this seems rules out everyone who actually attends). Having the opportunity, not just to vote, but to propose, argue for and against resolutions which become party and government policy is an incredible way of making sure that MPs and MSPs do not lose touch with their activists and members. It is an incredible way of bringing obscure issues to the forefront of debate. The activists are the ones constantly campaigning, canvassing and leafletting, knocking doors, organising stalls and stuffing a quite frankly absurd number of envelopes. These are the people with the greatest amount of exposure to the public and as such these are the people best placed to suggest future legislation which will benefit the public.
No matter how many surgeries an elected representative may hold, they can never hear the same number of viewpoints as their canvassers can, and they can never have that same amount of exposure to people outside the party as their activists can.
At its roots, a party conference is a celebration of its achievements, a recognition of the hard work put in by MPs and MSPs, but more importantly, the hard work and commitment of grassroots activists. Moore says the conferences are “all that is wrong with Westminster, simply relocated” — she must be going to the wrong conferences.
Image: ‘Unknown’ via Wikimedia Commons, available at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Anti-Annexation_meeting_at_Hilo,_1897.jpg