How will the political autumn differ without party conferences?
“Boris takes to the stage” by BackBoris2012 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

The politician and the party

Within every politician, there exists a Robert Louis Stevenson style ‘Jekyll and Hyde figure’. This refers not to their personality but their responsibilities. On the one hand, they are MPs in Parliament who represent their constituents, regardless of how they voted. When they hold constituency surgeries or receive emails, they won’t turn constituents away if they voted for another party. 

However, they are also members of their political party. Commentators often talk of politicians needing to place the national interest before their party interest, but it is to their party that politicians often owe a great debt. Their party provides funds, members, data, advice and campaigning resources that help them get elected. In most constituencies, there is no such thing as the personal vote. Politicians are reliant on their party banner to ensure they triumphantly head to Westminster. 

It can be difficult for MPs to reconcile these two tensions: to whom do they owe the most loyalty? When voting in Parliament, politicians are ‘whipped’ by their party to vote a certain way. Defying the whip and becoming a rebel often makes a reputation for politicians, leading to reduced chances of promotion and the increased likelihood of deselection by their local party. During the Brexit years in particular, MPs often had to wrestle with their conscience on these issues. Each MP had to consider their constituency’s preference, the party whip, their own beliefs, and the view of the entire country when deciding how to vote on some of the most crucial decisions in decades. 

However, there is one time in the political calendar where the responsibilities to one’s entire constituents are placed to one side. The autumn party conference season is where their party membership triumphs over duties to their electorate of voters.

The conference season

Party conferences are gatherings of political parties to discuss policies, hear the speeches of senior spokespeople, attend numerous fringe events related to the party and allow members to come together. It is the very definition of an echo chamber. Though there will always be internal debate within a party about the most effective strategy for victory – which is always healthy – every member present is united in a belief that their party is best suited to run the country and deserves votes. 

Party conferences have been around for decades. In the 1950s and 1960s, there existed a far greater attachment to political ideas and individuals being part of the electoral process. Conservative membership used to top three million. Now it’s 180,000. Similarly, the Labour Party used to have over a million members. Both parties would dream for that figure now. 

Traditionally, party conferences would take place at seaside towns like Blackpool and Bournemouth, partially because of the cheaper hotel cost after the summer holidays. Nowadays, the conferences are more likely to take place in big cities with special conference arenas, like Manchester, Birmingham or Liverpool. To avoid competing for media coverage, parties usually agree to stagger their conferences throughout September and October. This means that the conference recess, when Parliament isn’t sitting, takes place over nearly a month. In 2018, MPs returned from their summer recess on 4th September. They then began their conference recess from 13th September which lasted until 9th October. 

This is a considerable amount of time where the responsibilities of MPs at Westminster are placed to one side. Recesses of any kind should receive a note of caution. Simply because politicians are absent from Westminster doesn’t mean they’re on holiday. Often, they will have more time to complete work in their constituency and meet with local groups. That being said, inevitably some matters can only be resolved on a national level in Parliament. Having MPs away from the Commons for so long means that they can’t ask questions or challenge ministers. This can be frustrating for many MPs and constituents when the conference recess exists largely to serve political parties rather than the country. 

Due to the pandemic, the usual party conference season is not happening this year. Despite encouraging people to return to work, political parties have recognised that mass gatherings aren’t yet sustainable. All the main parties have moved their conferences online or cancelled them altogether. On the Liberal Democrat website, there is an outline of their virtual conference plans. These include debates on mental health, a universal basic income, the BBC and Q&A sessions. Although the virtual conference allows more members to attend from around the world, it won’t be the same as the real-life atmosphere of conference debates, amendments and jeers. 

It is unclear whether the absence of party conferences will mean the conference recess is cancelled. There are many debates that MPs need to have in Parliament and if these received more coverage at the expense of internal debates at conference, that wouldn’t be a bad thing. It begs the question as to why the party conference season gets such prominence in political discussion at all? Only the leader’s speech, usually on the conference’s closing day, receives any attention in the wider media. These keynote speeches at conference are key to examining how leaders attempt to use their party conference to shape their appeal both to members and the country at large.

An opportunity to change direction?

If a party repeatedly loses elections, they lose credibility. Often the only way for a Leader of the Opposition to be heard seriously, and at length, is at their conference. They are not facing the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s Questions or a tough interview in the media. Instead, they are free to make an hour-long conference speech as they wish, setting out their agenda, which can be used to reset their party’s direction. In 1994, Tony Blair’s slogan ‘New Labour, New Britain’ was groundbreaking in trying to allow voters to trust their party. Similarly, before Labour’s landslide 1997 election victory, the soundbite of ‘Education, Education, Education’ demonstrated to voters what their priority would be within government. 

The former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron also highlighted his attempts to modernise his party. As Prime Minister in 2011, he stated that he didn’t “support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I am a Conservative”. His socially liberal credentials were in direct contrast to a party that introduced Section 28 in 1988 under Margaret Thatcher, which banned local authorities from promoting homosexuality. Previously in 2006 as a newly appointed Leader of the Opposition, he stressed his devotion to the NHS and committed to dealing with climate change, neither of which were seen as overtly Conservative causes. Both leaders used their speeches at party conferences as strategies to win over voters they had previously lost.

A leader doesn’t always command a united party. Yet parties that want to enter government have to present a united front to the public. All wings have to back the leader as the best candidate for office – no gaffes or embarrassments are allowed. This was something Labour leader Neil Kinnock had to confront in 1985. After Labour’s dreadful 1983 election defeat to Margaret Thatcher, Kinnock took over amid bitter infighting between Labour members and ‘Militant’, a Trotskyite organisation attempting to infiltrate the Labour Party and move its ideology to the far left. 

The ‘Militiant’ tendency had already done this effectively in Liverpool council by running an illegal budget. This resulted in council workers losing their jobs. Any credibility that Militant held was shattered by Neil Kinnock’s 1985 conference speech where he stated “you end in the grotesque chaos of a Labour council – a Labour council – hiring taxis to scuttle round a city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers”. Although this didn’t lead to a Labour victory in 1987 or 1992, it was an important step for reaffirming Labour’s credibility as a serious party of government during the latter part of the Thatcher years.

The ‘make-or-break’ arena

Conference speeches also have the potential to ruin a leader. Iain Duncan Smith was widely derided as Conservative party leader from the moment he took office in 2001. The party had just lost two landslide elections and seemed further away from office than any point in their history. Much of the media caricatured Duncan Smith as a quiet man, a stereotype he played in conference speeches. In 2002, he remarked that individuals shouldn’t “underestimate the determination of a quiet man”. In 2003, Duncan Smith stated “the quiet man is here to stay and he’s turning up the volume”. Weeks later, he was gone. 

Not always a ‘make or break’ moment in themselves, conference speeches can be notable for what is forgotten. The 2014 conference season was the final one before the 2015 general election between David Cameron and Ed Miliband. At this time, a referendum on EU membership was a policy proposal rather than a concrete certainty. Economic discussions dominated the political conversation far more deeply. Yet in his 2014 conference speech, delivered without an autocue, Miliband forgot to discuss either Labour’s plans for deficit reduction or their immigration proposals. Though this was blamed on campaigning against Scottish independence, it weakened Miliband’s competence, Labour’s credibility and was a gift to David Cameron. The following May, the Conservatives won an overall majority at the election. 

Party conferences have also been the target for outsiders as an attempt to bring down leaders. In 1984, the Grand Hotel in Brighton was bombed by the IRA the night before the final day of the Conservative party conference. Their aim was to assassinate Margaret Thatcher, who was staying in the hotel alongside many colleagues. Five people were killed and multiple were injured in the blast which destroyed the front of the hotel. Thatcher survived, despite being in close proximity to the bomb and walked out unharmed. Despite many calls to cancel the final day, Thatcher argued the conference must go ahead as planned and that terrorists shouldn’t be allowed to destroy democracy. She was heralded for her tenacity and determination, given that many close friends and colleagues had been killed and injured only hours before and it strengthened her ‘Iron Lady’ image. In a far less serious manner, Theresa May’s conference speech in 2017 was disrupted by a prankster handing over a P45, a serious cough and letters falling off the set design. Though none of these things were her fault, it added to a damaged picture of May, who was already weakened after losing her majority at the 2017 election.

The significance of conference speeches isn’t reserved for the two main parties. The traditional third party, the Liberal Democrats, were significant during the coalition years and their time in government. Despite receiving criticism for promising to scrap tuition fees, they’re currently better known for their failed Brexit policy. It was at the Liberal Democrat conference last year that former Conservative MP Sam Gyimah was introduced as a Liberal Democrat MP because of his opposition to Brexit and defection to the party. Similarly, the Liberal Democrat conference in 2019 was where revoking Article 50 – which would end Brexit – became the party’s official Brexit policy. Given the general election results last year, that decision clearly worked against them. 

These are simply the memorable highlights of how leaders are able to use conferences to shape their vision for the nation. Broadly though, most conference speeches are forgettable. Those by senior ministers or shadow cabinet ministers receive hardly any attention. Fringe events aren’t televised and reach only the party members attending. Instead of promoting any necessary parliamentary business facing the Commons, broadcasters prioritise speeches of varying quality. Rather than looking at an important local matter, discussions over future leadership contenders and the individuals involved take centre political attention.

Party conferences see politicians descending on an area of the country for a few days before departing back to Westminster. The virtual nature of conferences this year may well mean broadcasting and print attention is better allocated. Despite conferences receiving large amounts of news coverage, their significance and influence on the public are minimal. Yet the conferences collectively take up a month of every year. While every politician experiences peaks and troughs in their parliamentary career, their party loyalty – their inner Hyde – triumphs during the conference season.