Party conferences: our challenge to the politicians
Even before the Conservative Party conference started, The Canary – a Corbynite website of dubious value – was falsely attacking BBC journalist Laura Kuenssberg for speaking at a fringe event (she didn’t).
At another fringe event, Boris Johnson claimed that the Libyan city of Sirte could be the next Dubai. “All they have to do is clear the dead bodies away,” he said. Elsewhere Craig McKinley MP suggested jobless young people should “get on their bikes” and take up farm work alongside “gorgeous EU women”. And to cap it all, Theresa May made that speech.
Labour had by far the best conference, but it still generated its fair share of controversy. A speaker who questioned the Holocaust in one fringe event found himself in the national press. Tom Watson promised an investigation. Emma Dent Coad was probably hoping her first conference as MP for Kensington would be less eventful. She found herself under fire in the press after incorrectly suggesting Prince Harry could not fly helicopters.
To read the papers you’d barely have known a Liberal Democrat conference happened this year. Speeches, debates and votes went unremarked. The Glee Club – a boozy sing-song – got more coverage than all the serious stuff put together. The conference disco hit the headlines. Tim Farron’s skills as a DJ proved not quite good enough. His set was judged only the second best on the night. The Green Party and UKIP conferences similarly passed under the radar for the most part.
Political parties are tribes with their own curious traditions. The press and public can hardly be blamed for looking on in some amusement at the odder examples. And when senior politicians make questionable statements, it would be strange indeed if their opponents didn’t make hay.
Perhaps, though, parties should consider what purpose political conferences serve in the internet age. The world is changing. The tradition of the party faithful making this annual pilgrimage surely needs examination.
The main two party conferences have long since stopped making party policy. For a period from the mid 1990s they showcased the best and brightest, the rising stars. We now have 24 hour media and no end of speech-making all year round. Conferences have become just one of many opportunities to hear our politicians orate – and not always well.
Grabbing a drink with old friends
In reality, the party conferences are a lot more valuable for networking, grabbing a drink with old friends and lobbying than for pushing political messages to voters.
It is both helpful and important for Ministers and Shadow Ministers to understand all sides of an argument before making critical decisions, and party conferences play an important role in providing opportunities for that to happen. Indeed, Remarkable Group is very successful in helping our clients put their case to key decision makers at party conferences.
So it’s no surprise that with little else of interest to report, and with the media either attending fringe events or hearing recordings of them, a misjudged comment in a room of political friends has the ability to become the big news story of the following day.
As we approach the 2020s, parties should look at what they want to get from conferences. They could examine the media coverage they actually do get and consider whether a model that has barely changed in decades is still fit for purpose.
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