No Labour member likes to see their party in dire financial straits. But we’ve had to get used to it over the past few years, and accept it as an excuse for a great deal. The move to Brewer’s Green from Victoria Street was fuelled by a desire to drive down costs; so was the abolition of Spring Conference several years ago.
Now, independent commentators such as Mark Ferguson say that cost is just one reason to abolish annual conference altogether.
But, as with so much else in the Labour party, the priorities as to how our subs are spent seem all wrong.
On Wednesday my doormat greeted two similar-looking envelopes, with the address printed in the Labour party typeface. I was ‘invited’ to a special Q&A with Ed Miliband at conference. Twice – both in letters from general secretary Iain McNicol (with ever-so-slightly different messages – someone explain that one!) with glossy ticket-like ‘personal invitations’ enclosed.
I can only presume that this is the event on the conference timetable to which anyone with a pass can turn up. Do I really need to be informed about this separately at all, let alone twice?
One of the sweetners thrown into the Refounding Labour package approved by conference last year – ensuring that constituency parties (CLPs) voted in favour in spite of their autonomy being stripped away – was that every CLP would have one conference pass paid for. The miracles this would work were being proclaimed as late as last week. “Several CLPs have had the financial barrier to attendance lifted,” wrote Emma Burnell on LabourList. “Therefore there will be more conference delegates attending than has been the case for some time.”
Yet figures reveal that only three quarters of CLPs will be represented at this year’s conference, down from 83 per cent last year, when there was no provision of support.
Of course it’s a good thing that there’s something to help struggling CLPs with dosh shortages. But of course, the cost of conference is much greater than the price of a pass. Delegates need somewhere to stay, and to get to Manchester (or wherever) in the first place.
Perhaps, rather than spending a fortune on sending every attendee (far greater than the number of delegates) two useless glossy ‘tickets’, they could start up a fund to help poor CLPs with funding conference expenses?
But that will only go so far while conference seems powerless and irrelevant to the policy-making process. I’ve already made some suggestions for how to make conference more efficient and useful in ways which will save the party money.
It might sound rash, but once we’re rid of the patronising round-table discussions and the celebs, why not abolish the ‘Leader’s Q&A’ too? It’s easy to forget that the conference fringe is full of such events anyway – and this could clear some space for proper debate and decision on party policy.
Conference delegates deserve to have the right to feed their ideas into the leadership. But isn’t that why we vote on policy?