Party Political Conferences in 2013

With UK politics firmly fixed on a global outlook over the past few weeks due to the Syrian Vote and the G20 summit, the looming party conference season seems to have been overlooked. Starting with the Lid Dem conference in Glasgow on the 14th September, followed by Labour in Brighton, and then the Conservatives in Manchester on the subsequent weekends ‘sound bite’ season is fast approaching as leaders aim to land early General Election blows. Yet are these annual gatherings of the like minded still relevant in the modern political landscape and can they be updated to combat falling political interest?

A paper published last year by ‘Policy Review Intelligence’ questions the relevance of these conferences and claims they are ‘coming to symbolise the disconnection between politics and civil society’. It continues to press the case that even the rebranding of the conferences as a ‘festival of ideas’ has failed and conferences need to brought in line with modern society. Traditionally party conferences have been a chance for party members to get involved and get their voice heard by the upper echelons of the political class. However with party membership falling and political apathy at an all time high attendance at these once landmark events is on a downwards trend.

The balance of the conferences is all wrong and centres on producing ‘sound bites’ for the 10 o’clock news. In a world of 24 hour media coverage we are endlessly hearing from our politicians and currently conferences are just another chance to hear top politicians talk. The emphasis should shift away from keynote speeches and towards debates on policy issues. Instead of broadcasting another speech from Cameron, Clegg or Miliband we should be broadcasting some interesting debates from the small conferences rooms that surround the media circus that is the main hall of these conference centres. Politics and the political direction of this country is a constant debate so why not give these discussions a platform? Hearing from the political elite is important but we hear from them every day through every type of media. If those disconnected with politics were to hear ordinary people passionately debating policy then maybe they will become more engaged.

A further issue with party conferences is one of economics. A huge amount of money is poured into the conference season with every party having its own conference in scattered throughout the country. Many would argue the operation and then media coverage costs of these ‘Westminster weekends away’ is completely out of touch with reality in these tough economic times. A rebuttal would be that over the course of three weekends a year a few thousand people descend on a handful of towns, yet that is a very localised and short term economic boost. With spending needed to be reduced the relevance and viability of the conferences needs to be questioned.

To further underline the claim the party political conferences are beginning to represent the discord between Westminster and the voters, it is estimated that the cost for one individual to attend a conference is around £720. When compared to the average weekly UK household expenditure in 2012, which was estimated at around £480, the cost of these conferences takes on new significance. When the cost of attending a conference is one and a half time the average weekly household spend you again have to question how in touch these conferences are with voters.

Years ago political party conferences were an important part of the political calendar but in the modern political landscape they are outdated and serve only to highlight the rift between MPs and voters. The conferences can play an important part in healing this rift but they need to be overhauled and refocused to take the emphasis away from the party and give centre stage to its supporters.