My article for this week's Herald and Post...
So, the 2023 party conference season comes to a close. I was in Manchester for the Conservative conference along with a group of East Hants members.
It is an unusual time, because though some of the most significant ‘politics’ of the year are happening, Parliament isn’t actually sitting, and each of the parties convenes alone.
I say ‘alone’ but actually a very large number of the attendees at a party conference aren’t actually members of the party. There are a lot of journalists, think tankers, charities, industry groups, employee groups, and more besides. Many people I saw at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester this year will actually have been attending at least two, and quite often three (add Lib Dem) or even four (add SNP) of them. By the last conference in the season, they often look exhausted.
So what, actually, is the point of a party conference?
Clearly, from the parties’ perspective, the conference - especially the set-piece leader’s speech - is a key showcase moment. And for many party members who attend year after year, it also is a social occasion. There are quite a few fellow party members from other parts of the country who you might see rarely if ever except from at the annual gathering.
Journalists and commentators find party conferences a useful barometer of the mood in a party. And, of course, they also look out for any differences and disagreement.
Party conferences can bring deeply memorable moments in their own right. Readers of a certain age will certainly recall Margaret Thatcher’s “not for turning”, David Steel’s “go back to your constituencies” speech, and Neil Kinnock’s verbal assault on Militant, that prompted a mix of applause and walk-outs.
On a number of occasions, Labour conferences have marked important moments for the party. In my party, the 2005 convention, for example, was pivotal in cementing the leadership for David Cameron.
But every year, I think we can identify three key purposes for British party conferences.
First and foremost, they are the physical manifestation of the political party. We are - like most all liberal democracies - a party-based system. The conference draws together all the layers: the grassroots members, elected officers and staff, councillors, MPs and ministers, and the leader.
Second, they are a place of debate and discussion in which all members can take part. Mostly this is away from the main conference floor, at the many hundreds of ‘fringe’ events, on all manner of subjects and interest areas.
And finally, after all this diversity of thought and discussion, the mainstage keynote speeches, and especially the leader’s, set out the principal themes and priorities for the time ahead.
Parties and participation are at the heart of our democracy, and even in this world of 24-hour news and always-on social media, these annual gatherings continue to provide a fundamental focal point in our polity.