by John Redwood MP and Baroness Warsi / 21 Sep 2012
This article is from the October 2012 issue of Total Politics
Yes, says John Redwood
Many things in the modern world are so much better than 30 years ago. Products are of higher quality, there’s much more choice, internet technology is great, and more people have better-paid jobs.
The same cannot be said of the party conference. Today’s conference is not even a pale imitation of conferences past. It is scarcely a distant relative. Great issues were debated on the floor of Conservative conferences past in full view of the media. The platform faced votes it could lose. Passions were allowed to run high. Ministers had to face their critics.
Today, learned spin doctors tell us that’s a bygone world. They say the party conference must not display disagreements. There must be no passion about policy, no struggles to win the leadership’s favour, no criticism voiced from any party quarter of what ministers are doing. There are no challenging votes. Known critics of the leadership are not invited to make speeches.
Where former party members were forced into constituency ballots to see if they could buy a ticket to come, there are now difficulties in selling all the places available. Where once party conference thronged with active members keen to have their say, exchange views with ministers and jostle into packed fringe meetings, now there are corporate guests with their marketing stands, BlackBerries and fringe meetings that put across business points to the few who come to listen.
All is done for the media, yet the media hates it. It wants to see disagreements and a public airing of the arguments and struggles it knows are going on behind the scenes. A trouble-free day at party conference makes few headlines. Starved of any real arguments made by dissenting politicians, the media seeks out trouble as best it can. Quite often a whole day’s planned favourable coverage is blanked out by a random event, a chance remark, a loose phrase or a literal slip, as some great figure comes a cropper.
At a recent conference, I went to a fringe meeting on health. There was a shadow minister, myself, and the rest were corporate representatives. They had literally taken over this part of our conference.
If you ask members why there’s now less competition to come, they’ll supply various answers. Fewer working people can take most of a week off. It means taking holiday, which they might now prefer to spend in warmer climes. Retired members probably preferred the seaside resorts of earlier conferences, and are less attracted to the large cities. Conference hotels near the event are good these days at charging high prices and insisting on someone booking four nights, which makes it dear for many representatives. Some say that they do not think the leadership wants to hear from them, so they do not see the point in going.
I have no objection to going to our great city centres. I’d be happier if future conferences took place over a weekend rather than occupying most of a week, as the main content could easily be put across in a shorter time. If the party wants media events, then a series of press-orientated visits or activities carried out by the party leader is probably a cheaper, more focused way of achieving the aim.
If dissent is thought to be such bad news, a shortened and changed party conference could have a closed session. There would be leaks and rumours, of course, but also heightened press interest and some ability by the leadership to spin the result they wanted. Some disagreements, if pursued around the issue and not by character fights, can be healthy and good for a party. The large parties are coalitions themselves, and there need to be occasions when we can talk to each other and test the popularity of given views within the party.
The media assumes that all parties are split, and regularly delights in writing about the actual and alleged splits. If we want the party conference to be reborn, it needs to show some passion and some disagreement. The current, corporate-driven statement of the leadership’s main spin lines is putting off both members and the media. It would be better to kill it off than carry on with the current format.
John Redwood is the Conservative MP for Wokingham
No, says Sayeeda Warsi
“It gives me a spur for the coming year,” said Margaret Thatcher in 1982, explaining why the annual Conservative Party conference was so important to her. Thirty years on, conference is still the highlight of the political calendar – it’s our Glastonbury, minus the mud.
There are many reasons why conference is crucial. It’s the only opportunity for the professional, voluntary and parliamentary parties and our sister parties around the world to come together in one place.
This necessary pause in our political year is a chance to look back at the achievements of the past 12 months and to look ahead at our collective to-do list. Here we can be enthused, inspired and invigorated, be it by a stirring main-stage speech, a thought-provoking fringe event, or simply by the thoughts of a fellow party member you meet in one of the bars.
As well as being about strong internal debate, conference is an opportunity for our messages to echo beyond the auditoriums, a public showcase of what our party’s all about. And it’s a chance to get out of Westminster and to the places where politics is really done.
What makes a conference delegate feel truly part of something is a certain sense of history. There’s a feeling that here, great things begin. David Cameron’s notes-free speech in 2005 won him the leadership of the party. William Hague’s words from the platform as a 16-year-old launched his political career. And a chance conversation at the 1949 Llandudno conference between a friend of 23-year-old Margaret Roberts and an association chairman looking for a candidate set the grocer’s daughter on her remarkable political path.
However, when conference season begins, many say that the ritual should be scrapped. Some journalists slate the cheesy walk-on tunes, the corporate air, the media and the lobbyists (even though most of the grumbling emanates from speech-weary journalists themselves).
I do, however, concede that two criticisms are partly valid: the issues of cost and of providing the space for free, open debate. But these are not good enough reasons to scrap conference – they’re reasons to rise to those challenges.
In an era of ever-sophisticated conference facilities, where exhibitors, the media and delegates expect a more professional set-up, conference has moved to the areas where cheap B&Bs aren’t as readily available. Consequently, the combined cost of accommodation, conference pass and transport can equate to the cost of a holiday.
Some say this deters many members from attending. I’m sad to say, I’m sure they’re right. That’s why, each year, party co-chairman Andrew Feldman and I have devised special packages to reduce prices. This year, we’ve negotiated special deals, including train fares, one-day passes and special accommodation offers. Our mission is to make conference cheaper and more convenient, and therefore more appealing.
Regarding those who cite the conference ‘heyday’, when there was voting and much of the time was allocated to issues chosen by the members, I agree. Conference should be a conversation, not a lecture. I disagree with those who say that a free and open debate could lead to embarrassing episodes for the party in this 24/7 media age. We’re a broad church, and a broad church deserves a forum for proper discussion.
That’s why, year on year, I’m striving to achieve open debate for members. ‘Meet the Chairman’ sessions, of which I’ve held dozens, have proven that holding honest, frank discussions with members is rewarding, constructive and leads to improvements within the party.
So we’re going further: we’re bringing debate to the forefront of conference this year, holding special members-only events with ministers, and enabling members to shape our 2015 manifesto with more Conservative Policy Forum events, building on last year’s successful main stage CPF debates. Members will also have direct contact with top party officials to discuss the campaign strategy and the road to 2015.
Conference continuously evolves – better facilities, slicker presentations, more member involvement and interaction, embracing new technologies and IT – but despite the changes, one thing remains: members are the beating heart. Conference is their event. So once more, Andrew and I are planning a conference that will be more engaging and more entertaining.
Evolve, adapt and improve conference, yes. Scrap it? In the words of one of the event’s biggest advocates: no, no, no.
Baroness Warsi is the former co-chairman of the Conservative Party