A new school and university year, the return of wall-to-wall football, shortening days and self-improving evenings. But if it’s autumn in Britain it must also be Brighton, Bournemouth, Bristol or Birmingham: the seaside towns and Victorian cities where political parties and movements variously gather for their annual conference.
The unfolding of the ritual extends even to the chronology. The venerable Trades Union Congress launches the series (with, this year, the election of its first female head, Frances O’Grady, competing for headlines with macho calls for a general strike), followed by the Greens (whose own moment in the sun was the choice of former journalist Natalie Bennett as leader, another step in the creeping Australianisation of British politics, of which more below) and the United Kingdom Independence Party (whose bellicose one-man-band, Nigel Farage, basks in promising poll figures).
The baton is then passed to the Liberal Democrats, buffeted but resilient junior partners in the coalition government that took office in May 2010; Labour, whose adjustment to opposition after thirteen years in government has still to metamorphose into worked-out policies for a future term; and the Conservatives, assailed by events and gnawed by suspicions, yet – appropriately for a party whose raison d’être is power – even more obsessed with how to win next time.
The parties of the United Kingdom’s other nations and regions – among them the Ulster Unionist Party (this year in Belfast), Plaid Cymru (Brecon), and the Scottish National Party (Perth) – also hold their main assemblies during this “conference season.”
In many cases, depending on their size and resources, the various parties convene more modest spring and region-based gatherings. But the autumn meeting is the big occasion, both for leaders (to bolster confidence, burnish their image, and prepare the ground for battles ahead) and for activists (to voice concerns, argue ideas and policy, and find reassurance among the like-minded). If parties continue to be fundamental to representative democracy at all of its levels, then these assemblages of free citizens – old pros and young Turks, grandees and rising stars, constituency faithful and true believers – are also part of its texture.
But as with many such rituals of public life, the very familiarity of party conferences can distract from changes in their character, which often reflect wider political and social shifts. In the case of the major parties especially, these changes include the pervasive media presence, which offers opportunity for promotion (good) and exposes the party to potentially damaging scrutiny (bad), but in any case tends to encourage uniformity and blandness in the main event (though not the often livelier conference “fringe”). The decline in party membership, and the withering of many parties at local level, make the delegates appear more exotic than representative of a broader community of the engaged. The permeation of security measures through much of public life has been driven partly by real threats (an Irish Republican Army bomb at the Conservatives’ 1984 conference killed five attendees and came within a whisker of assassinating Margaret Thatcher) but also arises from its own internal logic. Regardless of the cause, though, it tends to maroon the event inside an anonymous “exhibition centre” surrounded by barriers and checkpoints, a physical expression of alienation between politics and the everyday social world. Perhaps above all, the influence of business and institutional interests on politics turns the assembly into a “trade fair” where sponsors and lobbyists are as much in evidence as political animals.
The result of all this is a hybrid of old and new, reflecting an era in which the political parties themselves are still federal constellations of people and organisations based on shared interests, purposes, values and ideas, intent on campaigning in and winning elections in order to advance these; but also operate as corporate bodies, seeking to amplify their brand and extend their share of the political marketplace. In this context, the conference comes to fall less under the rubric of “public meeting” and more the field of “event management.”
The domination of politics by money is as grave a problem as democracy faces, and clearly goes far deeper than its visible manifestation at party gatherings. Alongside the other changes, it renders ever rarer the kind of epic moments and dramas that have inscribed themselves into Britain’s rich political folklore: Hugh Gaitskell in 1960 pledging to “fight and fight again” (to save Labour by keeping nuclear weapons); Quintin Hogg’s platform histrionics in 1963 as top Conservatives jostled for the throne; Michael Foot’s passionate oratory when he was Labour’s left-wing darling in the 1960s-70s; Michael Heseltine’s flamboyance as the Tories’ equivalent in the 1970s–90s (a lock of “Tarzan’s” hair falling with each exuberant anti-Labour jibe); Norman Tebbit advising the unemployed in 1981 to get on their bikes and look for work (his sadistic enunciation and cadaverous visage accentuating the menace); Neil Kinnock’s excoriation of far-left entryists in 1985; and, perhaps above all, Denis Healey’s chaotic Heathrow-to-Blackpool dash in 1976 (his eyebrows as fervent as Heseltine’s curls) to warn the comrades against voting down Labour’s austerity policies and thus tie his hands at the International Monetary Fund summit in Manila.
Labour tearing itself apart, and in public – those were the days! And they’re unlikely ever to return, whatever else of a face-to-face contest of democratic ideas – part of the ingrained conviction that this conference, and politics generally, matters – can be clawed back.