or: Tory Conference is a Different Country – They Do Things Differently There…
This autumn I went to my first federal party conference. Liberal democrat conferences have a long agenda of policy debates where arty policy is decided by the attending voting representatives of local parties all around the country. It’s a complicated business, democracy – and nobody quite expected that a party can be in government and still make decisions in this way. As it turns out, it is surely nerve-racking at times for the leadership (and I can’t say I mind that in the least: that’s what democracy ought to be like), but it can actually give them a stronger hand in negotiations – so on balance, I think it’s been working better than I ever imagined.
So I was a little surprised to see that by the end of the conference season, a number of media reports focused on the idea that party conferences were no longer discussing policy, let alone deciding it. Martin Kettle of the Guardian, talking about ‘demeaning rituals’ offers a good summary - Andrew Neil also harped on about it on the BBC for a while. I guess by the time the season was over, all of two weeks after they had sat in on LibDem conference votes (if they could be bothered), they’d forgotten all about it.
But the Conservatives clearly also felt that these comments did not reflect their conference properly - and today the Tory party’s Fiona Hodgson, who chaired their party conference, has responded to those criticisms. Some of her comments are rather striking:
Take policy debates. For years, Members have been crying out for live debates in the main hall. Many of us wanted to go back to the good old days when volunteers have a strong voice on policy on the Conference stage. And what happened this year? Not only did we have two live Conservative Policy Forum (CPF) debates on the fringes of the Conference, chaired by the Minister for Policy, Oliver Letwin, but on the final day, the Voluntary Party quite literally took centre stage, with a debate slot on the main stage in central hall, featuring contributions from the audience and a strong panel. This was a real leap forward – and a fantastic success.
OK…. there were policy debates…. and…? I feel there is something crucial missing there…
But this isn’t all, and Fiona Hodgson ploughs on:
Look at other aspects of Conference and you see the same thing: a stronger voice being given to volunteers. For instance, at this Conference we had another Members-only Meet the Chairman session which I chaired and where Party activists could quiz the Party co-Chairmen. It was absolutely packed and could have lasted twice as long.
Is there more that can be done? Of course! Clearly all this is a journey, but we are now a long way forward from the strained relationship that existed at one time between the membership and CCHQ. So I hope that just recognition can be given to the fact that members were not “airbrushed” out of the Conference this year, but that progress was made to ensure that their voices were heard.
Well… can more be done? I’d say that there are policy debates and policy debates… but the only ones that really count, end like this: