Party conferences: past their sell-by date?
Labour have lost the rose and embraced the Olympic/Paralympic-ennobled union flag. In tribute, the workers’ blood red has leached away into Olympic fuchsia.
The backdrop of staging has become a gentle blue. Not far from the blue that so projected Margaret Thatcher on to an unsuspecting stage in the Tory Party conferences of the 1970s.
Turn the sound down on this year’s Labour Party conference and you could be forgiven for thinking that you were at one of the others. Time was when Labour would have gone to the ramparts before ever trading the red flag for the union’s emblem.
Time was when a debate at a party conference was a debate, a clash of ideas, speakers from different perspectives, and votes on issues. But such open shows of political candour were deemed too dangerous, likely to scare the populous, let alone the horses. Today rounds of applause abound. I have yet to hear a heckle or a boo. Yet isn’t the stuff of political argument, the odd moment of bad behaviour?
News is the occurrence of the unexpected. Very little “unexpected” is permitted in the set-piece plenary moments of any party conference these days. The unexpected, if it occurs, occurs on the fringe. Here there are flashes of passion. But when the hands go up for questions, the arms, more often than not, belong to NGOs and think tanks.
So how does all this go down in the wider world? Have the conferences become mere shop windows? If they have where is the real debate? Is there one?
We live in the most connected age we have ever lived in. Yet the sense of connectivity with the outside world at all these conferences seems, if anything, to be going the other way. If there is no spark from the floor, beyond the clapping hands, is the spark somewhere out there in cyber-space? If it is, it does not make its way in here to the cavernous ICC in Manchester. Tweets are neither solicited nor displayed, Facebook is never referred to.
Pollsters have been talking here about how young people are not voting. My sense here is that the ambition is safety first. No risk. No danger of someone shouting, “How about doing it this way?”, or “Can we talk about mental health?”, or some such. The propagandists have taken over the hen coup and the party conference as a mechanism for connecting politics with the electorate is in danger of imminent death.
One of the benefits today is that we get to see a man who aspires to be the next prime minister and hear what he has to say. We get to listen to men and women who seek to be in his cabinet, but is it enough? Is that all there is, or all there needs to be to justify these vast panjandrums?
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