Has Covid killed the party conference?

Marie Le Conte

Could we invent the party conference if it didn’t exist? Whingeing about having to spend four days in airless rooms outside London is the national sport of Westminster. The hotels are too expensive, the food too bland, the alcohol too warm, and there is never enough time to get some proper sleep.

“It’s basically a load of politicos from London traipsing up to Birmingham or Manchester to mingle with a load of other politicos from London who you see most of the time anyway,” is how one special adviser puts it. It wasn’t a surprise, then, that few tears were shed when it was announced that the pandemic would be putting a temporary end to them.

Still, those who work in or around politics should be careful what they wish for. Annoying as they might be, these annual set pieces are there for a reason.

The most obvious one is corporate funding, both for political parties and for any organisation running events. “It is a money-spinner,” said one agency lobbyist, who fears the cancelled seasons could leave large holes in the parties’ pockets.

“My clients will not be spending £10,000, £20,000 or £100,000 with the party to get a premium spot in the venue. They won’t be spending money with think tanks or publications to do roundtables.”

Though the online conferences may well involve some sponsors doling out cash for Zoom fringes, the amounts will be negligible compared to what they would have spent otherwise. Still, it isn’t (just) about the money, especially for the Labour Party.

 

Labour’s loss

As the new leader of the opposition and a drastic change from his predecessor, Keir Starmer will lose out by not being able to bring his party together and explain where he would like to take them over the coming 12 months.

“Conference is the party’s sovereign decision-making body. It is the conference floor that, by rule, decides on our policies and our campaigning objectives and priorities for the next year,” explains Charlotte Nichols, the MP for Warrington North. “In the absence of that, the Labour Party setting out its stall and getting the same kind of level of press coverage is certainly not impossible, but much more difficult.”

As current polling tells us, voters who had deserted Labour seem quite amenable to Starmer, but still not quite ready to jump back. The new leader’s inability to make his case on a national stage could very well hurt him in the long run. Some Labour MPs remain optimistic, at least.

According to shadow justice minister Bambos Charalambous, “Keir has been doing different meetings with different CLPs virtually. Those have gone down well. They’re never going to be a substitute for a widely reported conference speech, but that’s been quite positive because when you’re no longer reaching out to a wide audience and you’re forced to do things more locally, your message can become more focused, and it can really hit home.”

 

Family affair

The Conservatives, meanwhile, can afford to be a bit more relaxed. Though Boris Johnson could do with an opportunity to reaffirm his priorities, this can be done elsewhere. Asked if he was worried about the impact the lack of conference would have on the party, one Tory MP shrugged and said: “The leader’s speech is a piece of performance art, it’s not about what the leader says. Theresa May’s speech with the P45 – nobody remembers what she said that day.”

That doesn’t mean there aren’t any drawbacks. As he himself pointed out, conference may just be about seeing the same few people you see all the time if you work in Westminster, but for others it can be make-or-break for their career.

“When I was an aspiring MP, I made sure to go to conference because I wasn’t a spad, I didn’t have access to that world, which you do need if you want to get a safe seat,” he said. “So I made sure I went to conference from the Sunday to the Wednesday. I booked it out every year because it’s quite important for those people to be able to be seen.”

Ambitious future politicians aren’t the only ones who lose out from conferences being cancelled. For party activists, they can often be the highlight of their political year. This may seem like a secondary concern but it shouldn’t be. After all, parties wouldn’t be anywhere without the people willing to canvass in all weathers, and go knock on doors up and down the country. In exchange for that (often gruelling, always unpaid) work, they get to spend a few days mingling with one another and with their MPs, and feeling like they are part of the family.

As the Conservative MP remarked: “There is an argument people have every year on how to make the speeches in the main hall more interesting, but the truth is the activists in the hall don’t want it to be interesting. They want to see the famous politicians.  They’re not interested in hearing me wank on about Global Britain at a fringe. They’ve travelled across the country in order to see Priti Patel because they love her.”

Though the speeches from frontbenchers are rarely thrilling, the very fact that they need to happen sharpens the minds of parties. Not every line must include a new, bold policy, but knowing that the set pieces occur once a year will force them to at least come up with a new vision for the short and medium-term.

 

Shifting priorities

“Conferences force the parties to come up with some kind of programme of government and opposition, which is a good thing,” said Luke McGee, a political journalist for CNN. “More importantly, they put all the most important people in those circles in one venue for a few days, which means lobbyists, journalists, politicians and party members all rub shoulders in a venue that isn’t Westminster, which can be very productive.”

This last point is the elephant in the room: politics is about connections and informal conversations, and there is no better space for those than party conferences. As you probably know from experience, the schedule of hall speeches and fringe events only really provides a backdrop to the real action, which takes place in the hotel bars and nearby restaurants.

Westminster often feels like everyone knows everyone else but it can be tough to keep in touch with people. “I’m a pretty gregarious MP and I’d be surprised if the circle of MPs I talk to frequently is more than 30,” said the Tory MP. “That’s quite a lot, but it’s still less than 10 per cent of the parliamentary party.”

The same goes for journalists, for whom there are not enough hours in the day to keep in touch with all their sources. The (temporary) end of conference drinking is also tough on public affairs, which relies heavily on quick chats and informal drinks.

As one lobbyist explained: “There’s the hard policy stuff, where people go to civil servants and have very serious meetings with ministers, but the rest of it is hanging out with people and not forcing your opinions down their necks but getting a sense of how they think and feel, and that is tough to do remotely.”

It is hard to picture a nation mourning the demise of lobbyists, but this should worry those who either enjoyed conferences or at least found them professionally useful. The pandemic forced the gatherings to get cancelled altogether, but they had already been declining for some years. On the one hand, fewer and fewer MPs had been turning up, or only deciding to make an appearance for half a day. On the other, new technology means that those who would once spend tens of thousands of pounds on face-to-face engagement no longer really need to.

As the agency lobbyist explained: “We have seen events budgets turned into digital budgets, so that could be creating content that tells your story if you are not going to do a roundtable with The Spectator, or doing a podcast with a publication rather than doing an event at conference with them. Or it could be creating some graphics and then use really targeted ads on Twitter and Facebook to reach politicians and get in front of them in that way.

“Conference is relatively fun, it’s always quite interesting and you get loads of useful and valuable information. But it is not irreplaceable.”

 

Seaside nostalgia

If taking a year off makes businesses realise that there are cheaper and more effective ways to reach politicians, we may well witness the end of conference season as we know it. Though it is not all about the money, without it there is not much point in holding such grand gatherings that last for that long, when events could be more compact and still achieve some cut-through in the media.

Other events have also been popping up over the past few years, and showing that it is possible to gather politically-minded people in one place without making it gruelling. The Big Tent Ideas Festival is one of them. Originally held in the countryside then brought to London, its cross-party approach to debate has gained some admirers.

After all, why should political parties hold a monopoly on political conferences? It is in their interest for it to be the case, but the bubble can always decide to shift to a different model if they want to.

Perhaps this year should be remembered as a warning sign, and force the powers that be to make annual conferences worth it again. After all, countless political moments took place in and around those great halls – leaders have been made and broken within them. Just ask Neil Kinnock, whose famous tumble into the sea and “a Labour council!” speech took place in Brighton and Bournemouth respectively.

Or you could ask Tony Blair, who debuted the New Labour rebranding in Blackpool in 1994 then gave his “Education, education, education” speech there the year before he became PM. David Cameron would also have something to say about it – after all, it only became apparent he could win the Conservative leadership when he dazzled the hall by speaking without notes, once again in Blackpool. Then there was, of course, the Brighton hotel bombing of 1984, which arguably was one of the most important moments in recent British political history.

In short, the country has been shaped by events at and surrounding party conferences for decades. If they were to disappear, it is not clear it would be for the greater good. It seems worth mentioning that their decline coincided with the move away from seaside towns and into major cities, with Labour having its final gathering in Brighton last year.

Maybe what we really need, then, is a return to the sea, where more interesting things took place. And well, if nothing else, a walk on the beach is always the best way to cure a hangover.

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