Conferences: Not what they used to be
Another half-empty conference hall this morning. It's been like that most days at all the major party conferences. Thousands of people there but few of them willing to sit through the pre-packed, made-for-TV, corporate-away-day-style presentations that the parties have substituted for what we used to call debates.
Tory conferences were always the most stage-managed of all but nevertheless I can still remember ferocious debates:
• about Rhodesia (as was) in the year Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979
• about the economy in 1981 when the former Prime Minister Ted Heath spoke from the conference floor and told conference not to applaud as "it will annoy and irritate your neighbours"
• about Europe when in 1992 Norman Tebbit angrily pointing his finger at Prime Minister John Major in the row about the Maastricht Treaty which tore this party apart
Of course that list explains why the leadership wanted to snuff debate out. The same is true with Labour after defeats on so-called contemporary motions such as the embarrassing 75p rise in the state pension. Even the Lib Dems - the most democratic of the lot - moved to quieten down their conference after debates about goldfish, prostitution and the future of the monarchy.
It's not that the conferences have died. The fringe meetings are packed with lively political talk, so too the cafes and the bars. What's happened is that they have mutated into part political bazaar - where those whose career is politics, whether candidates, MPs, lobbyists or political journalists, meet to do their trade - and part political festival. Think Glastonbury for politicos without, of course, the mud, the music nor, deary me no, the drugs.
Chris Grayling's gaffe was seized on by tired hacks sick of the dreary conference stage management. Just as Cherie Blair's indiscretion was when she walked past a TV showing Gordon Brown speaking and said in a stage whisper "that's a lie". As was the delightful moment when Charles Kennedy's pre-speech photo opportunity went awry. "What are you in for?" he asked the hospital patient who just declared that he'd be voting for the Lib Dems. The painful reply was "brain surgery".
Perhaps the spin doctors will begin to realise that spending hours shaping speeches that are delivered to empty halls and ignored by your own party workers, let alone large parts of the media, is not serving them well, let alone everyone else.