Refounding Labour to win — the report that was approved by Labour’s conference in Liverpool, concluded that “there is a need to tackle the declining attendance by some CLPs, which may be aided by extra financial support.” So it is encouraging to see an interest in declining attendance and support for democratising party conference coming from unexpected quarters. We are delighted therefore to see this explanation for the lack of attendance by party members and activists:
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.
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.
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.
Who said this? Step up John Redwood. Talking about Conservative Party conference. Sound familiar?