With conference season approaching, it does leave me to wonder what they achieve beyond being a get together for the party delegates. In particular though, with Labour and Tory conferences being about talking from the leadership and listening for the delegates, are they a shop window for the public on the way parties operate and are they part of the problem with politics today ?
Taking the conferences in order, the Liberal Democrat conference is always the first to be held, but it is also the most democratic and open of all the party conferences. The Lib Dems do actually debate and decide on policy with members and delegates having a real choice and real involvement. The real fly in the ointment is that fact that you can be guaranteed to have a Lib Dem conference spoilt each year by some nutty motion which might attract the headlines, but puts the party in the dock with the public.
Whilst it might have been necessary when the Lib Dems had 18 MPs to get the press to pay attention, this really is no longer the case. So what is it with the need to have the motions on abortion (1993) , euthanasia (1997) , banning goldfish from fairground stalls (1992), hard porn for 16-year-olds (2001), or controversial policies such as abolishing the monarchy (2003), and liberalising dope laws (2002). Hopefully those days are gone, but it doesn't stop people suggesting some daft motion or other like privatising the NHS or other such craziness. I remember virtually every year having to placate a member or dealing with an unhappy deliverer who was upset at something debated at Lib Dem conference. One would hope that this year will see a real focus on the economy, on civil liberties and on dealing with the problems resulting from the depression.
Labour conferences have gone from one extreme to another in recent years. gone is the socialism, the mass block votes and the real debate. Instead Labour conferences are just incredibly bring. party of this is in part because ruling parties do not have the freedom to allow party conferences to dictate policy willy nilly, but in great part it is more to do with Labour's control freakery. the clearest example of this was the throwing out of a delegate a few years ago by a bunch of heavies.
Last year's conference was credited with giving Gordon Brown the mandate to carry on, but in truth the fact that nobody stuck their head above the parapet to challenge him had more to do with it than the conference.
As for the Tory conference, to describe it as anything other than a drinks party where party bigwigs gives speeches would be wrong. For that is what it is. Policy is never decided, a real debate is not allowed, disagreement is not encouraged and it is in no way democratic.
So what is the point ? Perhaps the biggest thing a conference does it to confirm the general view a party has towards it leader. Remember IDS and his "Quiet man" speech ? Then there was Tony Blair's "Education, education, education" speech. powerful at the time (even if it were a lie). Kinnock taking on the Militant left was also a mile stone. But in recent years the most notably party conference may perhaps have been the Tory party conference when David Davis speech went down like a lead balloon and David Cameron won over the Tory faithful with a rousing speech that nobody expected.
Perhaps though the best reason for a party conference was written some years ago in The Independent when they said
"It is also the one week in the year the party workers - the "poor bloody infantry" who stick leaflets through letter boxes - can let their hair down and have a week-long gang-bang with like-minded people."