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In an era in which the UK’s two main political parties are overseen by highly centralised and controlling operations, the annual party conferences remain a curious anomaly.
Attendees ricochet between the official proceedings and fringe events beyond the cordon, often picking up a dose of conference flu on the way. MPs tend to groan at the prospect of tedious gatherings in airless convention centres. But for the party leadership, conference presents a genuine hazard.
Getting together politicians, party members, affiliated groups and donors may sound like a good way to re-energise supporters and set a future direction. But these gatherings are fraught with political risk, providing factional rivals with a public stage for making mischief and a private forum for backroom plotting.
“They are a party management nightmare,” says Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, citing the trend for political rivals to ambush the party leadership with “malicious briefings” and “eye-catching, controversial” public remarks.
For Labour, the jeopardy is even worse, with “unions doing their annual best to show who’s boss” and members grumbling about their motions being “neutered through some arcane, backstage process”, he adds.
Last year’s Conservative conference erupted into full civil war, with cabinet ministers joining in the demolition of then prime minister Liz Truss. Labour conference has also been a backdrop for infighting. This year, Keir Starmer’s team will be at pains to stifle dissent over his U-turns on tax, tuition fees and universal credit, on all of which the left is demanding a more ideological approach.
The myth of conference is that it is a chance for a party leader to create a political moment. This has happened in the past: Margaret Thatcher’s defiant address after the IRA bombing in Brighton in 1984, Neil Kinnock’s denunciation of the Militant Tendency in 1985, or David Cameron challenging Gordon Brown to call an election in 2007. But these are exceptions.
This year’s conference will be Rishi Sunak’s first as leader and his allies are already talking up the address he will give from the podium. Usually, however, a huge amount of time is spent crafting a leader’s speech that goes unnoticed by most voters. Only the more disastrous orations stick in the memory, such as Theresa May’s coughing fit in 2017 or Ed Miliband forgetting to mention the fiscal deficit when trying to pull off a “noteless” speech in 2014.
So why do conferences still take place? The simple answer is that they are sewn into party constitutions. The more uncomfortable question is, who are they for?
Increasingly, activists complain they have been priced out of attendance and are overlooked in favour of companies and the media. The steep costs of accommodation, meals and transport, alongside a four-day member’s ticket (up to £130 at Labour and up to £242 for the Tories) deters even MPs. One Tory parliamentarian tells me it cost £2,000 last year to attend with their spouse; they will not return this year.
Labour’s conference is ostensibly for its mass membership. The rule book holds that “the work of the party shall be under the direction and control of Party conference”, while convoluted regulations govern the selection of delegates from trade unions and Labour-affiliated organisations.
For the Tories, conference was originally intended to spur grassroots debate and rouse the party faithful ahead of elections. Instead, according to the former Tory MEP David Campbell Bannerman, it now feels more like a sales conference where lobbyists thrive but activists are scarce. Raising revenue has become a core conference goal, with parties charging corporate representatives to pitch stalls and host events. The Tories raised almost £2mn last year from conferences. Labour said its conference had “led to significant growth in commercial income”.
Party conferences take place partly because they always have done. They may make some cash for parties, but they also leave many members feeling resentful and soak up endless time and effort for little political gain. Party leaders should be asking whether the risks are worth the rewards.