It’s traditional at this time of year for media commentators to bemoan the death of the old-style party conferences, as if there was a golden era when open and constructive debate was the order of the day, when great speeches were made by great orators and when a single philosophy was shared by everyone and when nobody tried to manage the media coverage. Sorry, there never was such a time.
Each of the parties is a coalition of people and organisations with some views held in common and widely divergent views on a range of other topics. That isn’t bad, because it’s healthy to test and challenge each other’s views in a genuine attempt to forge a way forward. That doesn’t happen when you all have the same opinion.
When I first started attending my party’s conference, the panel for a fringe meeting would consist of four panellists chosen because they supported a particular line on a major topic – education or the environment or the NHS. Great for reinforcing a single line but rubbish for making people think and engage in genuine discussion.
Nowadays you almost always have a panel chosen deliberately for having different views in order to test each other’s evidence and conclusions. One of mine this week – about the riots last year – included Sir Hugh Orde, the president of the Chief Police Officers Association, David Lammy MP who has written a book about the events of 2011, a journalist and myself. Sir Hugh and I argued about creating regional forces (I’m against it) but we all agreed that it’s a disgrace that there was no major inquiry into last year’s riots like the one undertaken by Lord Scarman after the riots in the 1980s. Unless you understand your history, you can’t plan to avoid repeating the same mistakes.
So it’s not just the keynote speeches that make the conferences but what can be practically a 24 hour schedule of people coming together at panel discussions and animated roundtable events to debate policy and challenge each other’s views. In other words the important part of conference is the part that the media don’t cover and the public don’t see.
Compared to the issues generally cover by the media, these private debates are much more about the matters that bother local people – the sorts of things that constituents raise on the doorstep – so we need ways to open the door to wider public debate. It could be a wonderful opportunity for those who are undecided about who they should vote for in the next election, to see who allies most closely with their beliefs and who makes the most convincing argument for governance. Genuine debate can help to combat the increasing voter apathy and the image of politicians as just people who bicker.