Radically, party conference season involves the Westminster set actually leaving London, which must lead to many sleepless nights beforehand wondering whether mochas and running water have spread beyond the M25. For everyone else, the abiding question should probably be how so much time, money and media coverage can be blown on events where no-one really says anything.
Last week, the Labour Party – or at least the bits of it that could spare the £100 entrance fee – met in Brighton. This week, the Conservatives are congregating in Manchester.
The Tory Conference is unlikely to tell us anything we didn’t already know. Thanks to the kind of journalists who take DWP press releases as unassailable fact and churn out televisual variations on the theme ‘Why Are You Scrounging On Benefits, You Feckless Scroungers?’, we already bask in borderline-sociopathic Cameron-rays every day of the week. Labour might well be a neoliberalised sham of its former self, but at least hearing from Ed Miliband and co makes for a bit of a change.
In truth, though, there’s very little point tuning in to the coverage of either with any expectation of seeing political substance, because by the late 1990s party conferences had become essentially meaningless.
For the ever-hierarchical Tories, admittedly, they’d never been much more than a chance for a resolutely top-down party aristocracy to assess the mood of the rank and file. But Labour’s annual get-togethers could be strikingly democratic – yes, there was near-constant controversy about the influence of the unions and their vote-swinging ‘block votes’, but ultimately it was Labour members at conference who decided what policies went into the party’s manifesto.
That internal democracy, along with the notion that a party’s on-the-ground membership existed to do anything more than go leafleting at election time, was done away with under the guise of political ‘modernisation’ – a term which, in this country at least, has an unfortunate tendency to mean ‘let’s do things like they do in America’. Despite being madly unequal and ecologically disastrous, the United States was and is strangely looked upon as a role-model rather than a throbbing warning from history.
In 1994, a beleaguered Labour Party gave its top job to starry-eyed ‘moderniser’ Tony Blair. Effectively, he just accelerated and finished a process that had gradually wormed its way through much of the last quarter-century– the conversion of British political parties from vaguely consultative groups of like-minded people to strictly pyramid-shaped corporate-style organisations, with the unchallengeable all-importants at the top, obedient drones at the bottom.
Obviously Blair’s official jurisdiction started and ended with the Labour Party. But as New Labour proved electorally successful, the Tories, particularly under David Cameron, moved to emulate him.
The view that grassroots members were backward, provincial and needlessly divisive became common to the leaderships of both parties. Labour neutered its annual conference, its once powerful National Executive Committee, and swapped the interests of the unions and its core supporters for chief executives and its new friends in the City. Clinton fan Blair aimed to remake Labour as a US-style Democrat Party – no longer offering any substantial economic alternative, instead selling itself as the slightly friendlier and more socially conscious of the two big business parties. The Tories just paid even less attention to their constituency-level foot-soldiers.
Party membership tanked accordingly. There were a million Tories in 1990, about 400,000 five years later and 253,000 in 2005. Today there are just 134,000. Labour entered the ‘90s with 311,000 and grew to 400,000 by 1997. A decade later, that number had halved, and its present membership hover around 190,000. In the early 1950s, it’s worth remembering, Labour had over a million, the Tories nearly three times that number.
In either case, there isn’t much of a party left to have a conference. Nowadays the events themselves are more like extended press junkets, stretched out over a week of impotent fringe meetings but ultimately revolving around the leader’s speech.
The first ordinary members will hear about ‘their’ policies is when a party Big Name drily announces them. There’s pathetically little in the way of debate or consultation, let alone participation. Even the main event, the Dear Leader’s address, is only nominally directed at the hall-full of activists. In reality, it’s aimed straight down the barrel of the ever-present TV cameras and on to the tea-time news.
Breathtakingly shallow and devoid of political substance, the whole sorry affair reflects the state of modern British democracy quite well – a vacuous conversation between navel-gazing political elites and a mainstream media that’s demographically identical.
Both sides will claim it’s all for the benefit of the folks at home. But the public are in the same boat as rank-and-file party members – stuck as barely consulted passive observers. The main difference, of course, is that the supreme power supposedly underpinning the whole political system doesn’t lie with Durham Conservative Association or Stroud CLP.
Occasionally, the political establishment pretends to try and address why so many people don’t vote. Funnily enough, they never conclude it’s because they ignore the existence of a sizeable wedge of the population.
If you live in a swing seat, one of the few strategically vital constituencies not solidly weighted towards one party or the other, your attitudes and opinions are exhaustively researched, because your vote could be the difference between victory or defeat at a general election. As long as they don’t upset the neoliberal apple cart – which they’re unlikely to, since most swing seats are comfortably affluent – the parties might even take your views on board.
But if you’re part of the majority that don’t, and you’re not a hedge fund manager, a corporate chief executive, or the head of a huge media conglomerate, you don’t matter. When so much of the electorate is treated like it doesn’t exist, then, once every five years, given a menu with two fairly indistinguishable choices and told to pick one, it’s no wonder so many don’t exercise a right that some people would kill for.
Next time: Ed Miliband.