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The politics of the party conference

Matthew Eltringham

is editor of the BBC College of Journalism website. Twitter: @mattsays

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Autumn arrives and with it the party conferences. Political pundit Lance Price considers their relevance:

It was a pleasure to speak at a BBC College of Journalism event about party conferences and how they are managed, or mismanaged. I felt I could understand both sides of the argument, having attended so many; first as a BBC political correspondent, then as a spin doctor trained in control freakery, and now as a pundit.

I pondered whether there was any justification for party conferences any longer, as they are so stage-managed and lack any real decision-making powers, except perhaps in the case of the Lib Dems.

On reflection, they clearly do. It is the one opportunity every year for politicians, activists, charities, companies, and of course journalists, to rub shoulders and get to know each other a bit better. Even if the hotel and drinks prices are outrageous.

'Managing' conference has become a lot easier over the years for the party leaderships and their media teams. This is partly because, for the most part, the membership has learned the benefits of having a serious discussion and putting on a good face for the public. But also because journalists have been forced to accept that there isn't going to be blood on the floor very often, and that they just have to deal with the fact that they are showcases rather than bun-fights.

But it is in the interests of the parties themselves to loosen up a bit. However, for them to do so, it requires a bit of responsibility on the part of the media. The public switch off if they think there's no real debate. It looks boring because it is boring. It would be healthy for democracy if more genuine debate was reintroduced. But that will only happen if journalists can break the habit of calling a disagreement between members of the same party a 'split' or a 'challenge to the leadership' when it isn't.

The BBC could probably cope with that. As for our friends in the written press, well, I doubt it. And, so long as the politicians can't trust journalists not to blow any difference of opinion up into something that sounds apocalyptic, the party managers will try to make sure those discussions take place away from the cameras and the microphones.

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