This year I went to Liverpool for the Labour Party conference. It’s the first time I’ve been to a party conference for a few years and I was struck not so much by how things have changed, but by how much they have remained the same.
Superficially, this was a very different conference from the first conference I attended in 1995 when New Labour was riding a wave towards the 1997 victory. This year the debate was rather more about how much the Party should apologise for mistakes it made when it was the Government rather than what it would do if it were in Government again.
It was very different from the conferences I attended from 1997 onwards when everyone wanted to talk to Labour. This year you could almost see the apocryphal tumble-weed in the exhibition hall.
And of course, as the conference was in Liverpool for the first time since 1925, it was all taking place in a very different venue. Iain Dale may compare Liverpool to Gaza in his blog, but I loved it.
What’s remained the same is the format.
Whilst it differs marginally between the three main parties, the fundamentals – the exhibition, the fringe, the main conference plenaries and votes – would be recognisable to anyone who has attended a party conference in the past 50 years.
Let’s face it, the exhibition format is dying. I’ve been advising clients and employers for the past 15 years not to bother with a stand. And I am not alone. No-one I know in consultancy advises their clients to take a stand anymore and at an average cost of £10,000 a time, who can blame them? It’s too expensive, too limiting, too much of a drain on resource.
The fringe can be great fun but it is entirely questionable whether the discussions that take place in every spare hotel meeting room have any real influence. I was speaking to one corporate representative this week who was considering whether to recommend that his boss speak at a fringe meeting in Manchester next week. The decision came down to whether or not the Minister slated to appear on the panel with him would be there for a proper chat or, as is more often the case, was trying to pack three meetings into one slot and would therefore be gone even before his mic was unplugged! The fringe meeting itself was irrelevant. In fact, he didn’t even know what it was about.
As for the debate on the conference floor, it’s been a long time since the conferences had real policy-making powers – except maybe in the case of the LibDems – and the whole thing is so stage-managed that it’s more of a performance than a debate. Call me old-fashioned, but if I want to see a piece of theatre, I’ll go to the National, spend about 5% of what it costs to go to party conference and enjoy a much higher standard of acting!
So isn’t it time the parties offered something different? I wouldn’t go as far as the esteemed Jon McLeod who, writing in PR Week this week, thinks the conferences should be banned. But it cannot be beyond the wit of the political parties to come up with a more empowering, interactive and genuine format for policy debate than the conferences. And it should not be beyond the wit of the public affairs profession to come up with less expensive and more productive ways of networking with politicians, the media, clients and prospective clients than spending three or four days subsisting on warm wine and vol-au-vents.
I hereby make a pledge, I will happily host and facilitate a brainstorming session with any party officials who want to explore how they can do something different and better with the conferences and offer real value for money for the commercial visitors and genuine engagement for the party delegates. Refreshments included. No vol-au-vents.