No Standing Ovation for Conference Season

Party conference season is the clearest example of the gap between the leader and the led.

conservatives david cameron democracy Labour Party Conference liberal party conference season politics simon johnson

The end of September scatters politicians across the country for the annual charade that is the party conference season. This was once an exciting period, where leaders and policies were openly challenged.

Now it is nothing more than an uninspiring obligation.

David Cameron

Traditionally, conferences were an important occasion for the membership to reassert its democratic power over the leadership. Over the last century the Labour conferences were renowned for trimming the power of leaders and allowing supporters to contest policy decisions.

Today, policies are announced and dutifully welcomed by a supine party with the inevitable standing ovation. The historian is reminded of the rubber-stamp Soviet parliaments – is there anyone under 30 who can remember the last time that the conferences made a difference to party policy?

Just take a look at this year’s season. The hot fashion for autumn 2011 was animals, with a bizarre row about a cat dominating the Tory session in Manchester and an escaped panda giving the leaders’ address to the Labour faithful. Then there were the usual sessions concerning the merits of abolishing central government (the Liberals), the reintroduction pre-decimal currency (the Tories) and the failures of the Thatcher government (all of them). Predictable and uneventful – no one can be blamed for their disinterest.

Party conference season is the clearest example of the yawning gap between the leader and the led in today’s political parties. Those who hold no power go to their conference and make speeches on eccentric topics in the naive hope that they are shaping party policy. Pity these people, as undoubtedly their leaders will ignore them and go back to chewing their nails over fickle middle ground.

Far from being the showcase of our political system, party conference season highlights the true lack of democracy within our parties. Is it any wonder that the public greet it with a resounding yawn?