Gathering of the damned

In the words of Clint Eastwood;

Hoodi-floodi plinky empty chair, where’s my medication?

Yes, it’s Political Party Conference season, which comes across these days with all the anticipation of SAW week on X-Factor. (And I can’t decide if that’s Stock Aitken Waterman or the series of horror films, being as they are much of a muchness on reality television).

I’ve first hand experience of Party Conferences in my previous life, and in retrospect it’s amazing that I sat through them all without going mad. Or at least drunk. Despite the reputation of Conferences in memoirs and television fiction, the majority of delegates will only ‘network’ by changing trains on the way back home. For the majority of people who turn up at Conferences it’s a long week of listening to earnest speeches on Bus Stop Provision motions and administrative box-ticking with occasional training exercises involving role play and coloured cardboard. It’s a strange mix of middle management get-together and Evangelical church. And as anyone who’s accidentally flicked over to BBC Parliament can testify, it’s also unbelievably boring.

For one thing, there’s no set piece debates any more. Diluted and orchestrated as much as they now are, Conference organisers can’t risk splits (unless they’ve negotiated the result of that split beforehand) or wacky motions from troublemakers. Remember when the youth branch of  the Liberal Democrats used to guarantee a page in most newspapers by putting forward motions on drugs legalisation or sticking the heads of a disposed Royal Family on spikes along the Thames? All pushed out to the Fringes now, lest the media return to “OMG THOSE WACKY LIBDEMS” headlines, not least because there’s a greater need these days for the LibDems to turn up, be solemn and serious, and then go home again before Lembit turns up with a harmonica.

(Actually, I think Lembit is now on the ‘bargepole list’ drawn up by Federal Executives, alongside people like Brian Sedgemore and me.)

We’re not the only party whose Conferences have been blanded to death. Labour have ensured the media can’t get their money shot of a Union member jabbing a pipe into someone’s eye. The Tories have replaced all those women with knitted haircuts and suburban bow-tie dresses with diversity co-ordinators introducing five-minute video clips of eager backbench MPs with forced grins pointing at young children playing football in the street with plinky-plonky background music noodling away in the background. Where once Conferences meant Cabinet Ministers getting haughty, now leaders of lobby groups perform the same smooth advertising schtick as might happen in a boardroom of an AIM listed construction company.

Aside from Conferences being boring, the coverage surrounding them has failed to catch up with everybody else realising that their reputation for being ‘see and be seen’ calendar highlights has long since been a thing of the past. Even “The Thick of It” doesn’t pretend that anything goes on at Conference which might be considered intriguing. We’re left with the BBC asking Andrew Neil to perform set-piece gags in the entrance hall (insofar as anyone needs to force Andrew Neil to do something gimmicky for filler material). At least the LibDems ask members to contribute towards potential manifesto promises (by and large), the other two parties having deemed it necessary to only involve ordinary members for the Leaders Speech in case anything unfortunate happens. (We can’t have ‘TONY BLIAR WAR CRIMINAL’ protests every year, mind, and I can’t think who would be so frustrated at Ed Miliband’s impression of a wet flannel to consider heckling his speech-cum-lecture).

Talking about the Leaders’ Speeches,  it’s unfortunate that BBC News considers it necessary to broadcast Barack Obama’s Conference Speech in real time as it enables ordinary people who consider boot polish more exciting than politics to notice how natural an orator the US President is compared with:

*David Cameron, whose speaking style has now settled down into an incidental character from the Archers being asked to appear on “Live & Kicking” against his will;
*Ed Milliband, whose inability to tell a joke without signposting it for three paragraphs gives the impression that he couldn’t order a takeaway curry without rehearsing the phone call for an hour.
*Nick Clegg, now forced to abandon his ‘humility personified’ schtick in favour of something approaching how a father would speak in court having been discovered pleasuring himself with a frozen chicken by a close relative.

At least we don’t have the ‘Leaders Wives’ showcase in this country, which is prostitution by another name. It’s a blessed relief that our politics has copied only the least disagreeable bits of American political culture, so we don’t have to put up with Samantha Cameron forcing home made Eccles cakes down the throats of sketch writers and/or Andrew Neil. I dread the day OFCOM finally snap and allow political advertising on prime time television which shows Ed Miliband openly weeping as an David Cameron look-a-like wraps barbed wire around hospital beds and pisses into school lunchboxes. All the while, of course, BBC News and ITV News are left covering the personality side of Conferences because they’re still stuck with the idea that real life political news coverage must be covered as though everyone taking part has momentarily finished recording a new series of “Yes Minister”.  I’m certain the  reality of Conferences being the location of the beginning or termination of political careers ended when Alan Clark was in short trousers, but this doesn’t stop SKY News acting as though they’re covering a real time version of “The West Wing”. You can sometimes see Adam Boulton adjusting his trousers just thinking about it.

I’m aware that ordinary members of political parties need to feel involved in ways which go beyond raffle tickets and golf club meet-and-greets. It’s just Conferences have long since stopped being the solution to the involvement problem. They’re tedious and self-congratulatory sessions of advertising at the best of times, covered by a media machine in love with a fantasy idea of political intrigue. Maybe the age of gathering in coastal resorts for a week long love-in died longer ago than anyone dare thing, but in this age of cynicism and political abstention, it seems all the more remarkable than the charades are allowed to continue. How many focus groups convince the suits that the general public think they’re a constructive use of time and money?

There was a time when Conference season triggered my anorak tendencies, not least because I assumed everyone with a membership card had to go at least once, a sort of Hajj pilgrimage for leaflet droppers. Now I watch from so far back I might as well be in a different time zone. Sorry, politics, but  Conferences were always rather awkward and boring places for me to visit when I was involved in campaigns; now I’d rather not bother with you at all.  Good luck keeping Lembit away from a microphone….

Nick Clegg – good speech, bad Conference

Closing the Liberal Democrat Conference this afternoon, Nick Clegg had the concept of change on his mind. Change can be good, but loose change can be often rather annoying. Clegg had to ensure the modernisation agenda he wishes to wash away the cosy consensus of two-party politics in this country is not the political equivalent of pocket shrapnel.

His speech was well received, inside and outside the hall at Bournemouth. Taking the lowest earners out of income tax, improving the voting system for Westminster, altering for the better our nation’s attitude to young people and education, devolving as much decision making as possible to local people – all highly important and impressive policies from a man clearly eager to push the Liberal Democrats into the status of official opposition. He may yet achieve the aim of 100 MPs in the space of two elections, a high point which requires a net return of 20 more MPs in each election starting next year.

But Clegg’s high-point speech came at the end of a difficult week beside the seaside. His deputy Vince “fibre-optic” Cable made a passionate speech against Gordon Brown’s role in the current economic collapse, making a strong case for Liberal Democrat policies to help turn around the nation for the better. His “mansion tax”, a small levy on those homes worth over £1m, was greeted with warmth until the finer details were made clear after the speech. Suddenly things did not look so rosy – if the Liberal Democrats are against Council Tax, which we are, why is this levy based on Council Tax bands? Why did the proposal seem to have arrived without any consultation with other shadow cabinet members? How exactly would local authorities collect the extra money, and where would it go?

Clegg himself had to battle against plans to have “severe cuts” in public spending, including the ‘sacred cow’ opposition to tuition fees. Lembit Opik failed in his attempt to have rail nationalisation in the next manifesto, a policy which would potentially alienate many of the soft-Tories the party needs to attract at the next General Election. Overall, the mood of the activists seemed uneasy, as though the party had turned up expecting a typical Conference only to have most certainties whisked away from under their feet.

The Liberal Democrats remain the only true progressive and radical party in British politics, and throughout the Conference the Party proved it has the ability to make changes to the country which are so clearly needed. However the task of taking members with the leaders has been shown to be far harder than anyone expected. Conference did not go that smoothly. Now all Nick Clegg can do is wait – if the Conservatives have a good week away then a lot of the good work set out in his closing speech may have been for nothing.