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Why party conferences still matter

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The annual Party Conference season is now well and truly under way. It’s a time when each political party’s enthusiasts – what I call the badge wearers – spend a week debating obscure composites, resolutions and amendments. Little wonder then that the general public generally switches channels to see if there is a decent repeat available on Dave.

To their detractors like Tony Benn, party conferences have become like American political conventions in which ‘we just let off balloons, sing pop songs, greet showbiz celebrities and, if you’re lucky, have the occasional debate.’

So, do party conferences still matter?

The answer partly depends on whether a party is in Opposition or in Government. Opposition parties and their leaders are generally ignored by the media for the rest of the year, so the party conference becomes a vital occasion for Leaders of the Opposition to explain to the voters what they stand for. But if the party is in Government, conference defeats can be more easily discounted, as in 2003 when Tony Blair simply brushed off a conference defeat on foundations hospitals, and pressed on with the enabling legislation regardless.

In reality, the power of the annual conference largely depends on which political party we are discussing. In the case of the Liberal Democrats, currently gathered in Glasgow, genuine democracy prevails. As Nick Clegg admitted this week, ‘one of the joys’ of the Liberal Democrats is that their party conference truly decides matters of policy. Party delegates will largely determine the content of the next Liberal Democrat manifesto; at least in terms of policy, if not priorities. It matters, then, that Clegg narrowly won Monday’s debate on economic policy, not least to avoid the appearance of disunity.

If we go far back into its early twentieth century roots, the Labour conference was the sovereign body of the party. Labour MPs were seen as delegates whose role was to implement Labour party policy in the House of Commons. In theory, that part of the Labour rulebook – Clause 5 – still remains in place (‘The work of the party shall be under the direction and control of the party conference’)  But in practice, as the parliamentary Labour party grew in size, so its MPs started to flex their muscles. Initially, Conference defeats were rare, as the union block vote rallied behind the leadership. Indeed, between 1949 and 1960, the Labour leadership only suffered one defeat. It was only in the era of Hugh Gaitskell that the Labour leadership suffered a couple of serious reverses on the issues of Clause IV and nuclear disarmament. Since the Gaitskell era, defeats have simply been ignored.

Despite suffering these defeats, successive Labour leaders since Gaitskell have understood the true value of party conference speeches: they give Leaders of the Opposition a chance to be seen to be facing down critics in their own party. Famously, Neil Kinnock’s speech against the Militant Tendency in Bournemouth in 1985 demonstrated to the wider electorate that Labour was serious about modernization. His successor, John Smith, risked the leadership of his Party in 1993 in order to secure One Member, One Vote for the same reason. Twenty years later, Ed Miliband faces a similar challenge to that presented by Smith: he must show the public that he is serious about reforming Labour’s historic link with the unions.

In theory at least, the Conservative party conference is one in which the leadership is all powerful. But in practice, Tory conferences have shown a marked tendency to spark into life. Back in1978 when the Tories gathered in Brighton, a vigorous debate ensued in which delegates called for the lifting of economic sanctions against Ian Smith, the white supremacist ruler in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Replying to the debate, Tory frontbench John Davies gave a rambling speech, during which he was heckled loudly from the Conference floor. Sadly, the splitting headache he suffered from on that occasion was not the result of the heated debate, but a malignant brain tumour, from which he died a few months later. But no senior Tory frontbench still alive can forget the mauling Davies received from delegates on that occasion.

For decades following the abolition of the death penalty in 1965, the annual capital punishment debates at the Tory Party Conference became awkward events requiring careful handling by the conference platform. In his memoirs, William Whitelaw, Margaret Thatcher’s first Home Secretary, acknowledged that his over-emotional response to the capital punishment debate at the 1981 Conference damaged his standing in his party. Later on in the decade, Douglas Hurd, a consistent opponent of capital punishment, recalled having to contend with emotive speeches from retired police sergeants who were capable of stirring the Conference delegates into a froth. Mrs. Thatcher felt she had to attend these law and order debates, even if she took a different view from her Home Secretary. As speaker after speaker called for the restoration of the death penalty, she would clap her hands under the platform table, out of sight of the delegates.

Unluckily, it was Douglas Hurd, by this stage Foreign Secretary, who had to cope with yet another lively Conference debate in 1992, this time over Europe. On that occasion, the Party hierarchy allowed Norman Tebbit to make a poisonous speech against the Prime Minister, John Major. As Hurd prepared his reply to the debate, Major peppered him with ‘Give ‘em hell’ notes. Hurd was able to face down his conference critics, but only just.

The very fact that the Tory leadership has to respond to the occasional bout of sustained criticism from their members is surely good for our democratic system. Granted, the party leadership normally gets its way. But what the public don’t see are the fraught negotiations behind-the-scenes between delegates and the leadership over the wording of those aforementioned composites, resolutions and amendments. It’s what Richard Kelly in his seminal 1989 work on Conservative Party Conferences called The Hidden System.

Hardly the sort of political intrigue to persuade the public to miss a repeat of Would I Lie to You? on Dave, but important nonetheless.

Mark Stuart

Published inBritish PoliticsParty Politics

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