Party conferences used to be simple.
Politicians, activists and the media would up-camp to the seaside for a week to set policy, announce it, grab some headlines and gear up the activists for another six months. A Westminster recess almost guaranteed the headlines would be safely pointed in their direction for a few days for some valuable government announcement-free story space. Often heated policy debates set out a party’s agenda while their big names basked in their allotted media time. Then they’d top it all off with a leader’s speech to be televised and dissected and send the troops home to reinforce the messaging on the doorstep.
Gone for the most part is the seaside tradition, with more conferences held in big cities with better transport links. But what else has changed?
Journalists of course still attend conferences in numbers and often it’s not just political journalists but local papers and industry commentators. Politicians still need to capture the interests of the traditional media to reach potential voters unlikely to comb a manifesto. A room full of paid up members live tweeting may capture the purity of a speech but it won’t reach the ears of anybody who wasn’t already listening (or rather following).
However these days political bubbles extend far beyond Westminster and there’s no guarantee on a monopoly on headlines. Both Labour and the Conservatives have seen their conferences fight for column inches against scandals elsewhere, protesters and even the discovery of water on Mars. Nobody wants the news story to be ‘the divided party’ so where members once had it out over key policies, recent debates have tended to cover broader and less controversial topics. Member voting rights is a less common feature of party organisation than it once was, with most parties restricting voting rights to delegates, if they decide to hold a vote at all.
Increasingly announcements are stage managed rather than products of wider party participation, as those with the real power to set policy hold private meetings away from the main hall. Substantive policy announcements have become more like trade and industry shows and are often leaked in advance to ensure maximum coverage.
A leader’s speech still has the power to grab a front page. It’s an opportunity for a party leader to set out their stall and, maybe more importantly, their style. Even if a leadership doesn’t alter the political discourse it rallies the troops, and a really good speech though has the power to turn around political fortunes. David Cameron’s first conference speech may not technically have been a leader’s speech but delivered without notes it characterised him as a competent and confident frontrunner. A poorly delivered speech meanwhile can reinforce negative perceptions (remember Ed Miliband forgetting to mention the deficit?)
There’s also less debate because there are fewer members attending conferences. When it comes to mingling, politicians are more likely to be sharing the bar with press and industry, ever watchful and ever listening. On the one hand, there’s simply fewer political party members than there used to be but social media increasingly gives the remaining stalwarts a handy direct line to engage their leaders without the price of attendance.
Conferences aren’t going anywhere. Through the sponsorship, steep attendance rates (and some say a cut of the bar’s takings) they remain huge money makers for parties forever trying to fund another campaign. But for those looking to conference for a sign of where to cast their vote, some may come away feeling it was all a bit more about style than substance.