My post yesterday about the cost if policing party conferences has sparked off quite a debate, with the majority of commenters saying that they are worth the price of the escalating policing costs. Many make the point that if the parties cancelled the conferences for this reason the terrorists would have won. It's a fair point and one I have some sympathy with. However, let's look at the wider issue of what useful purpose party conferences serve nowadays.
A conference is, by definition, a meeting for people to discuss and exchange views. But that's not what party conferences are any longer. Nowadays they have become more akin to party rallies, where like minded people meet to cheer their party leaders. Very little substantive policy decisions are taken at party conferences, regardless of party. The LibDems still have agenda setting powers and discuss minute policy details, but the party leadership does its best to ignore anything uncomfortable which emerges. Their conferences does, it has to be said, still have some meaning. But the conferences of the big two parties are so stage managed, and put on purely as a showcase, that they have little long term meaning. OK, momentous events sometimes happen at party conferences, (witness the ascent of David Cameron at the expense of David Davis) but it is rarely to the advantage of the party concerned. All the travelling media is interested in is seeking out splits, disloyalty and drunken antics. They operate as a herd and once they have decided the conference is tanking, there's no going back.
The only part of most party conferences worth attending is the fringe. Here there can be genuine sparky debate, but again the media is always on the lookout for a negative story. Some leading politicians have given up speaking at fringe meetings because they reckon whatever they say, desperate journalists will jump on any loose language as evidence of a possible leadership bid, or disloyalty to the party leader.
Having said all that, I have attended round twenty Tory Party conferences and several Labour and LibDem conferences too. And I have to say I have enjoyed every one of them*. You meet a lot of different people and it really is a gathering of the tribes. But I still think they they have grown too stage managed and have outlived their usefulness.
Instead of one big party conference each year it would be far better to have two or three regional two day events, spaced throughout the year. They would be party rallies, not full blown conferences, but there would still be opportunities for fringe events and the usual networking and social events. The reason why younger people often cannot attend four day party conferences is because they can't get time off work. If the events ran from Friday afternoon to Sunday lunchtime, a wider range of people would be able to attend. At the moment, all the party conferences are dominated by people who either work in politics, have the time to attend or are ultimate political geeks. Luckily, I qualify on all three counts!
So let's open things up, attract a more diverse range of people and move with the times.
As Mrs Merton would say, let's have a mass debate!
* UPDATE: Actually I take that back. I did not enjoy the 2005 Tory conference at all. Not one little bit!