Watching the party conferences from afar


Some thoughts on the party conferences from my electronic window into the world

This post focuses mainly on the Lib Dems, Greens & Labour as the Conservatives are yet to have their conference at the time of posting. Still unable to shake of this head cold, combined with quite an intense bout of depression & exhaustion has meant the the most convenient way to deal with it is to watch for who is saying what at the conferences.

Lack of publicised live-streams

Given the growing importance of social media – in particular from the new leaderships of Labour & the Liberal Democrats, I was disappointed that Labour and The Greens did not have a very public live-stream for people to watch online. Although numbers won’t necessarily be huge, I can imagine that live streams would be more than useful for those that could not make it to conferences. Ditto for some of the fringe events – some of which were standing room only. This reflects two tensions within political parties. The first is control, the second is ‘technophobia’ – which in part is linked to control.

Realigning of ‘the left’

Basically the 2015 general election picked up all of the pieces of the left of whatever the political centre is, threw them up in the air and watched them all drop all over the place. Who would have thought in the middle of last summer the memberships of Labour, the Liberal Democrats and The Greens would have shown such huge rises? (See fig 2 here). I’ve not seen any post-election membership figures for UKIP or the Conservatives.

Unfamiliar territory

All three parties find themselves in unfamiliar situations. The Greens had to pass a number of motions to ensure their party’s systems and processes could cope with the massive increase in membership – which is about five times what it was this time last year. For the Liberal Democrats, they too have taken on lots of new members since the general election – growing by a quarter. Conference old hands noted how different their party conference felt with new first time members.

With Labour, as well as the impact of a new and unexpected leadership, their growth both since the general election, and since Mr Corbyn’s election has been spectacular. The number of people joining Labour since Mr Corbyn’s election is over 60,000 – more than the total membership of the Liberal Democrats and more than the total membership of The Greens. Furthermore with Labour, there’s an expectation from Mr Corbyn’s loyalists that they will be rewarded with influential posts inside the party at the expense of those for example in the Progress wing of the party. Whether this turns out to be true remains to be seen.

Dissatisfaction with old ways of doing political conferences

Watching the footage on BBC Parliament, you could have been forgiven for thinking this was any other party conference from the post-1997 years. Debate chairs and a panel of party big-names at the front, along with various speakers to large but not entirely-packed main halls. There were a number of mentions about poor chairing of various debates, along with the inevitable rambling speakers. That said, there were a number of more impressive women speakers that caught my ear with content and delivery.

The problem with the ‘one to many’ setup of speakers is that everyone else is stuck in relative silence. You don’t get the energy that you get with more fluid open space systems where people can self-select and discuss issues that they share a passion about. That’s not to say these didn’t happen – they did, but not as centre pieces. Whether they could have worked as centre pieces is up for debate. Many open-space practitioners I’ve met over the years often say 200 people max. What better ways are there for organising large political conferences that encourage people to be active participants rather than passive listeners?

What will the impact be of all the connections made in this social media age?

It could either make the divisions within parties much more public, and/or make the storming/forming stages as they rebuild from the general election a much faster process. Probably a bit of both. One of the other overlooked things is the rise of party ‘social media stars’ (for want of another term). In one sense, Mr Corbyn was one of the biggest beneficiaries of this in terms of how his supporters and the wider media (myself included) shared photographs and video footage of his speeches and events. His social media community became a sort of decentralised ‘instant rebuttal unit’ mirroring what Mandelson & Campbell had 20 years previously, but with no central control.

One recent phenomenon is meeting people face-to-face for the first time who you’ve been corresponding with on social media for what feels like ages. I’ve seen a number of mutual Twitterfriends meeting up for the first time at party conferences. My experience of such things is that the conversations that happen are as if you’ve known each other for years, rather than awkward first dates. As far as communities of mutual interest go, this strengthens them.

Various feelers have been put out from the various parties on co-ordinating anti-Conservative actions. Can this work?

Far, far easier said than done. Much depends on the personalities rather than the institutions. For example in Cambridge, there is an incredible amount of bad blood between sections of Cambridge Labour and parts of Cambridge Liberal Democrats. Where the Conservatives have little presence, for example such as Cambridge, there’s little to be gained from working together at a local level. The picture in Cambridge is made more complex by the recent growth of Cambridge Greens – pulling in around 10,000 votes in the local elections in Cambridge that happened at the same time as the general elections. Note the Conservative-dominated seats of South Cambridgeshire and South East Cambridgeshire that surround the city. Will we see any of the Cambridge-based activists help their fellow campaigners in wards outside the city limits?

It’s slightly more straight-forward on issue-by-issue campaigning. In particular if an established organisation is recognised as being the lead on such a campaign – for example a charity that is a household name. That way, campaigners can pressure the Government to make specific concessions. At the same time though, there’s only so much campaigning charities can do – not least because of the recent Transparency of Lobbying Act (which seems to have reined in the charities but not the loopholes on party funding). At the same time, I feel uncomfortable with some at the top of the larger charities being overly political in their activities. The reason being it’s all very well being a well-paid outspoken charity executive, but they don’t have to stand for election and account to the general public. That said, you’ll find a number of MPs who used to work for charities before making the transition into party politics.

Aren’t party conferences safe bubbles for political activists?

There’s nothing wrong with having a safe bubble so long as you don’t stay inside it all the time. Having seen what the Whitehall policy bubble is like, I got to see all too often the results of this and the impact it had on public policy – in particular during the latter years of the last Labour government. I couldn’t help but wonder what the link between ministers and their party members was when it came to public policy. There were all of these organisations lobbying left, right and centre, but no solid link between grassroots party members and the ministers who were part of the same party. That though, was before the civil service started experimenting with open policy. Food for thought for Labour in particular: Who makes and influences your policies when you are in government?

Outward-looking parties going beyond leaflets and becoming ‘social’

This from The Fabians’ event at the Labour Party Conference:

This is something I discuss every so often with local Labour activists & councillors – note the blogpost here and the comments. There’s no right or wrong answer to this. It really depends on your worldview of politics. On one side you can say that invitations to events and debates are only available to party members who sign up to the terms & conditions of membership. Why share the benefits & perks with non-members who won’t commit time or money to the cause? On the other hand, you can take the view that political loyalties are not what they were, and things are much more fluid. Therefore given what we are facing, why wouldn’t you want to tap into a group of people who don’t want to be members of your party, but are likely to be sympathetic to your cause? For example trade unions for Labour or environmental charities for Greens, or civil liberties groups for the Liberal Democrats? Or traditionalist religious groups for the Conservatives – noting in times gone by the Church of England was sometimes called the Conservative Party at prayer.

Shared local events?

This for me is where there is big potential – in particular for somewhere like Cambridge but also anywhere where you have a critical mass of civically-minded people. The challenge is finding politically-independent local institutions to do the hosting and to help with publicity. In Cambridge we are lucky to have so many that can do this – we had over 30 hustings in the run up to the general election with over 3,000 people attending.

But what about places where the community networks are not as established? Is this where individuals activists or councillors within parties could issue a call to community groups to organise debates and workshops on specific issues that local politicians can be cross-examined on?

“Isn’t that what local councils are for?”

Councils are constrained by a mixture of the law, funding and institutionalised inertia – that last point meaning a mindset of ‘We do this because this is the way we’ve always done things.’ For example, it took a change in the law for Thanet Council to accept that filming of council meetings was fine for the general public. (See this video here – and the article here on a councillor being ejected by police for filming.) So I’m not expecting local councils to become buzzing energised hubs of mass-participatory community action anytime soon. Not least with the further cuts Mr Osborne has got lined up for them.


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