After a long summer, conference season has finally arrived. Political parties from across the country will now gather and assert their ability to lead the nation. You would think that such events would be a full and vibrant demonstration of democratic values. Sadly, the common wisdom seems to be they are not. The media will be there; the lobbyists will be there and the politicians will be there –everyone, but ordinary members will be there in force.
The decline in the membership of political parties is both well documented and often quoted. In the 1950s, the Conservatives had 2.8 million members and Labour one million. Today, political attrition has led to a Conservative membership of approximately 130,000 and a Labour one of 200,000. Correspondingly, attending a party conference has become less and less normal. That is not to understate the facts – the Labour and Conservative conference can both expect an attendance in the region of 10,000. The problem is not a shortage of people wanting to attend conferences, which have become a lucrative way of earning income for cash-strapped parties, but that they have become increasingly distant from the general public.
Is this surprising? Well, considering the ability of ordinary members to shape policies, not particularly. Annual conferences now play a minor role in shaping election manifestos, in both the Conservative and Labour parties. Most of the big outcomes of these conferences are pre-scripted and party strategists have largely decided what the themes of the conference will be far in advance.
It has been a long time since the grassroots of any political party managed to defy the leadership at a party conference. The Liberal Democrats are the only one of the main parties to have a reasonable measure of direct democracy at their conference. However, rather than being praised for this, there is constant speculation about whether the conference attendees will back their conference masters. This makes the politics of presentation seem more important than the politics of substance.
Everyone, in theory, seems to agree that conferences should be for members, yet peculiarly enough that is not what is happening in practise. Fringe meetings continue to be a hub for ideas, but it seems perverse that it is only at the peripheries of a conference where real discussion is taking place.
A partial explanation for this trend is that party conferences are no longer just for the members, but are part of a national political drama. Indeed, the media is already raising the stakes this year; the Daily Mail has helpfully pointed out that Ed Miliband is now as unpopular with voters as Iain Duncan Smith was 8 months before he was dumped as Tory leader, resulting in the Labour leader’s upcoming speech being turned into a crucial moment for his leadership. The focus then becomes less upon self-reflection and critical debate and more about a triumphant display for the party leader.
The concerning part about this issue, is that senior politicians have so little to say about it, or even worse, they deny it. For example David Cameron, in a message to Conservative Future members, claimed:
The problem with statements like this, from all politicians, is that they radiate positivity, but bear little relation to reality. People begrudgingly pass it off, saying party leaders have to say things like this. In truth, it is damaging, as the issue of internal party democracy can only be addressed once it is admitted.
Naturally, having a conference representative of your base is a risk; it is a lot harder to whip ordinary party members, as opposed to career-minded MPs. It is a wonder how party leaders can express surprise at political apathy, when they are unwilling to even give their own members, who generally agree with them, their own say. Displays of faction on the national stage are certainly damaging, but equally a lack of discussion can lead to both weakly supported and poorly conceived policies.
British political parties have been top-down organisations for quite some time now. The ability of party headquarters, to parachute candidates into seats, makes that plain. It seems party conferences have become so thoroughly scripted that they verge on being a sham to extort media coverage from the BBC.
The decline of the party conference can be linked to several other national trends: the decline in strong party affiliation, the decline in electoral turnout and, most clearly of all, the decline in party membership. However, a point will come where political parties will have to give power back to their members, even if it is only to maintain an organisation capable of campaigning on a national scale. Rushing activists around the country works fine for by-elections, but in general elections, parties will begin to be stretched extremely thin. A time will come when political parties will be forced to decide whether they wish to be democratically accountable to their members. If the answer to that question proves to be no, then they risk the overthrow of the current political status quo.