THE leader’s oration has become a meaningless ritual in political party conferences that are in need of a radical overhaul
TWO hours earlier, David Cameron had spread his arms wide and thundered: “Together we’ll build that land of opportunity!” The hall had rung to the sound of cheers and applause, as party members craned their necks for a sight of the annual Sam-cuddle. But now, two hours on, everyone had gone home, and the interior of Manchester’s Conference Centre, where for three days the powerful and the connected had wandered and dealt and argued, was being dismantled by a team of workmen. There are few things quite so bathetic as a stage after the act has finished. Cameron’s bracing yet essentially vacuous call to arms now seemed laughably overblown.
For the UK parties, conference season is all but over for another year (the SNP’s is still to come, in two weeks’ time). And though questioning the point of the entire circus is not new, the doubts are back again. The days of party worthies yelling at each other across a sweaty, smoke-filled conference room as policy was thrashed out have long gone. Indeed, mass membership has long gone. Instead, as has been regularly pointed out in recent years, conferences these days aren’t so much meetings of the dwindling party faithful as a travelling circus for the entertainment of the media-politico-lobbyist nexus.
The venues have changed to reflect that; where previously parties would treat their members to a few days away at the seaside, now the sharp-suited political class prefers one of Britain’s swanky city centres, be it Manchester, Glasgow, Birmingham or Liverpool, so they can enjoy something more civilised than a greasy plate of chips and a Seaview B&B. This exclusive atmosphere is then cemented by the security arrangements which turn conference venues into a kind of political Green Zone, where the great unwashed – and potential terrorists – are kept at bay by six-foot high temporary fences and omnipresent G4 security staff.
Most of the regulars inside, particularly after week two, insist they hate the whole thing. One public affairs director, Jon McLeod, let off steam a couple of years ago: “A seething horde of humanity swarms over the political class for four or five Pinot Grigio-soaked days and nights,” he moaned. “A fortune is spent on policing ... and the whole show is put on for the media. It’s got to stop. In these hard economic times the money should be spent on something more productive.”
He has a point. For what is produced by all the fuss? With the odd exception – the SNP’s Nato vote last year comes to mind – conference debates have become meaningless; or at best opportunities for the leadership to create a row, and be seen to overcome it (the Lib Dems’ debate on the economy three weeks ago is a good example). And as for the great climax of the week – the leader’s speech – it only serves to highlight the absurd gap between the effort expended on conference and the negligible impact it then has.
The effort that goes into the speech is bordering on the insane. In Ed Miliband’s case, we learnt earlier this month, it involved coaching by Paul Greengrass, the director of films such as the Bourne Supremacy. But this is just the start. The diaries of former leaders reveal the torment that goes into the writing process. Drafts get torn up. Panic sets in. “He phoned in a state of near despair,” recalls Alastair Campbell of Tony Blair during one pre-conference nightmare. “He said he read the draft again from start to finish and it was hopeless … he was literally pulling at his hair, saying he was in despair.”
Finally, after this effort, the speech gets signed off. Then, on the morning itself, the weird build-up for the speech picks up pace. At the Tory conference in Manchester last week, keen young delegates were already queuing at 9am to ensure they got a good seat. In the press room, journalists who normally sigh cynically at the thought of another political speech jostle to get tickets to ensure they can watch live. Outside, cameras await the big shot … and then they finally appear, the man himself arm-in-arm with Samantha/Miriam/Justine, walking from their hotel to the conference venue, grinning at the applause like newly-weds, transformed for a few hours from expenses-claiming second-raters of the popular imagination to rock stars topping the bill.
The hall is opened. The obligatory hero-worshipping video – showing the leader meeting kids, wearing a hard hat, speaking to apprentices – is displayed to the soundtrack of an off-the-shelf uplifting pop song. Cheers from the crowd. Not long now. A few “ordinary” people give their stories of hope. And then … finally … “Ladies and gentlemen!” He emerges. The faithful spring from their seats, cheering and applauding. Suddenly, from the midst of our cynical, weary public life, up pops syrupy adulation. Truly, truly weird.
But for what exactly? Speeches that are remembered by the following weekend are few and far between. They can, of course, change the way leaders are viewed – such as the two charismatic performances by Ed Miliband over the last two years, and a similar noteless speech by Cameron in 2007. But these are the exceptions and the effect doesn’t usually last. And when it doesn’t fly, then the wiring behind the fake dazzle shows all too quickly. In the case of Cameron last week, the sense that this was perhaps really not worth it came, for me, as he was still speaking. When he got to his lectern, and his face appeared on two huge screens on either side of the stage, he looked knackered. The bags under his eyes had themselves grown bags. And apart from insisting that he wanted to “finish the job” and create a “land of opportunity”, it was clear that he didn’t really have an awful lot else to say.
No matter. A leader’s speech had to be spoken. Clap lines needed to be spoken. They were spoken. People clapped. Up came Samantha, dutifully. But none of it quite hid that tired look on Cameron’s face, nor the recollection of previous occasions when he had performed with greater vim.
It didn’t used to be like this. In Harold Wilson’s case, for example, he didn’t even come up with his famous “white heat” speech until the night before he gave it. At 9pm, he told his secretary Marcia Williams: “I still don’t know what to say. I think I’ll go to bed and do it in the morning”. No, do it now, she replied, adding: “Why not the science committee stuff?” And so greatness was born. No such winging it for our modern-day actor politicians in the presidential game they are forced to play.
Messrs Clegg and Miliband, of course, went further than Cameron, memorising their entire oration, seemingly of the view that – with the lens of public scrutiny now available on everyone’s smart phone – they must try to raise the bar ever higher. And yet isn’t it the case that we, the public, claim to detest the modern politician-actor, the stereotype who puts style before substance?
It’s not all a waste of time of course. The best of conference is to be found in fringe meetings, often paid for by the lobbying firms, where politicians, industry groups, and think-tanks can debate free from the need to deal in faux black-and-white certainties. Then there is the essential bonding that conference facilitates, with the pub always beckoning. For the parties, the conferences are a rare occasion when they can largely control the media focus for a fleeting week, and be guaranteed coverage for their plans. And then there is the money – both for the party, which will charge four-figure sums for dinners with ministers, and for the host city.
But is there a better way? A survey of Tory members by the ConservativeHome website last week found that a majority would like members to have a bigger say in the way conferences are organised, that they should be held at less-expensive venues and held over the weekend (something David Cameron is said to favour). For councillors and humble activists, it would certainly be easier to get involved if they weren’t having to give up a few day’s holidays in order to meet up. For all party figures, including MPs and MSPs, something which didn’t cost quite so much would also be more attractive.
A few other ideas come to mind. Is it really necessary to have the event every year? (the US parties appear to be quite happy meeting just once every four, for example). Could the fringes not become an event of their own? The Festival of Politics at the Scottish Parliament, held every August, might be a template. Or, the UK parties could go further and follow the Swedes. Every summer, representatives from all the major political parties – plus the media and the lobbying trade – descend on the island of Gotland for “Almedalen Week”. Given Britain’s tribal political culture, it is hard to imagine – but the thought of a thousand Tory, Labour, Lib Dem and SNP activists hitting the bars in Skye for a week could be fun.
Or here’s a radical thought: book a big hall somewhere. Copy the model of the ground-breaking TED Conferences and search out a rosta of inspiring speakers from your party and from people associated with it with a remit of either informing, inspiring, or delighting a crowd. Give anything boring the Simon Cowell treatment. Have the party leaders sit down and listen. All go to the bar afterwards and drink too much. And then have the party leader make a speech at the end about what he or she has learnt. Perhaps, watching the TV, people at home might wish they were at the event too.
Perhaps that’s just too disorganised and idealistic, and many conference veterans will wearily acknowledge that, while they may be a pain, they are still a necessary part of modern political life. But as they stand, party conferences only serve to embody the chasm that exists between a self-absorbed political-media bubble, and the rest of the country, while at the same time exhausting the people we elect to run the country. Ed, Dave, Nick – spare yourself the bother, and have a re-think. «