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Do the party conferences still matter?

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Robin Lustig | 09:22 UK time, Friday, 28 September 2012

I can't make up my mind: am I relieved -- or disappointed -- that I won't be at any of the political party conferences this year?

With just a few exceptions, I've been to at least one of them pretty much every year for the past two decades -- so it does feel a bit odd watching them on the box like everyone else. (Everyone is glued to them, aren't they?)

On the one hand, I won't much miss the windswept, rain-lashed joys of Brighton, Bournemouth and Blackpool (latterly joined by Manchester and Birmingham, which have a better class of hotel but no storm-flecked seas). Nor will I miss the cold fried eggs at breakfast, nor the excessive amounts of instant coffee drunk from polystyrene cups.

But I will miss -- am missing -- the sense of drama that accompanies the party leaders' speeches every year, and the urgent gossip in the bars as activists and aficionados exchange confidences and hatch plots.

Does any of it matter? Perhaps less than it did, simply because party managers have got so much better at managing, and their media advisers have taught them that conferences work best these days as product launches rather than as a genuine forum for debate.

I realised just how much had changed a couple of years ago, when I went to a lunch-time fringe meeting to hear what I thought might be an interesting discussion about future British defence policy. But instead of finding myself among party activists, I soon discovered that every other person in the room was either from a campaign group or was a lobbyist from a defence company. Not a paid-up party member to be seen.

Mind you, even orchestrated party rallies have their uses. Watch who's called to speak -- and who isn't -- and listen carefully for the core messages when the leader does The Speech. There's still a lot to be learned, even if it's probably true that most of it can be gleaned just as satisfactorily by watching it on TV.

Will you permit me a brief stroll down memory lane? To those drama-packed days of the early 1990s, when the then Labour leader John Smith pushed through OMOV (one member, one vote) to clip the wings of the trades union barons. And when John Prescott delivered an utterly incoherent, barn-storming speech in which, as was remarked at the time, you couldn't understand a word he said, but you knew exactly what he meant.

And to Iain Duncan Smith in Bournemouth in 2002, when he tried to turn his weakness into strength with the much derided line: "Do not under-estimate the determination of a quiet man." A year later, in Blackpool, he tried again: "The quiet man is here to stay, and he's turning up the volume." Weeks later, he was gone.

The early Blair years were full of conference drama as the new leader remodelled his party -- reinvented it, some said -- with a series of speeches which left some activists bewildered and others bewitched. (I thought I detected a bit of Blair in Nick Clegg at the Lib Dem conference in Brighton this week -- the same ability to tell the party faithful what they don't want to hear, yet somehow get them to cheer nonetheless.)

Party policy doesn't get made at conferences any more, and party splits are kept carefully hidden from view. Can you imagine a senior party figure storming off the platform in protest against his leader's speech, as Labour's Eric Heffer did in 1985, when Neil Kinnock went on the attack against Militant?

So yes, I accept that the conferences are not what they were. (The same is true in the US, incidentally, where party conventions used to be the place where, every four years, party activists chose whom they wanted as their presidential candidate. These days, the choice is made in primary elections, so much of the drama has gone.)

And while we're on the subject of the US, that's where I'll be heading next week. So as Labour meet in Manchester, and the Tories gather in Birmingham a week later, I'll be on the other side of the Atlantic. Listen out for a special programme next Thursday, and another one on Monday 15 October, with, I hope, plenty of other reports along the way.


  • Comment number 1.

    You: "...I went to a lunch-time fringe meeting to hear what I thought might be an interesting discussion about future British defence policy. But instead of finding myself among party activists, I soon discovered that every other person in the room was either from a campaign group or was a lobbyist from a defence company. Not a paid-up party member to be seen."
    Bingo! You win!!
    Lobbyists, unelected representatives of, in this case Defence, but in most US cases, it is defence, pharma, Israel (and more) - the biggest and most power lobbysists. You know those lobbyists that Obama promised to get rid of, or at least significantly reduce? Last count: 13,000 American lobbyists!
    What does one call a Government run by lobbyists - Lobbyism - nothing near democracy!

  • Comment number 2.

    Party conferences are a bit like Crufts (the dog show), an anachronism, but nevertheless like the Royal Tournament one would miss them.

    Politics itself is full of nose and fury that signifies almost nothing (in both the UK and the USA) and indeed much of the World. There is very little difference between parties - they are all representatives of the establishment - swapping sides of the Commons in buggins's turn.

    We have not seen any revolutionary change recently, even the SDP actually signified very little. Will we see revolutionary change again? Of course we will. But how soon. [Revolutionary Change is where a group comes to power that heretofore was not an integral part of the Establishment.]

    Do we need Revolutionary change? Probably. As corruption is now so all pervasive that it is really necessary to divet the river and clear out the stables. Tinkering at the edges is how we got where we are today, see banker/establishment corruption.

    The whole point of revolutionary change is that the actors are not visible as part of the establishment so don't ask me who they are! But the rot within the establishment is there for all to see - so many of our institutions have become limp and feeble shadows of that which they once were - we need to revitalise our politics!

    I am also afraid that the BBC is itself perhaps the worst anachronism, in that by its structure defective engagement with the public and its overweening arrogance in its protection of the establishment it actually stifles debate and so actually increase extremism and the tensions in society. The rise of the far-right in the UK and Europe (and the USA) is partly/substantially attributable to the media.

    All the media really ought to remember that "nation shall speak unto nation" is a reasonable standard for running any media service. (where nation is its people and speak does not include 'fomenting hatred of') However even the BBC falls far short of this standard more often than it should. To meet this standard of promoting pan-national concord, knowledge and understanding it is necessary in fact to censor - even the 'Yanks' have just arrested the maker of their terrible anti-Muslim film. The first amendment privileges have to be tempered by a realistic appreciation that to incite violence and discord is stupid and not the proper function of the media (or in the name of religion) - Google please note!

    Hope the weather stays OK in the USA, Robin!

  • Comment number 3.

    I see from an article in The Editors that you are leaving the World Tonight, Mr. Lustig.

    Any regrets? By regrets, I mean to ask whether you consider that there might have been any deficiencies in your reporting for the BBC (and indeed in the BBC itself) all those years.

    While at work in a foreign country where English is not often spoken I used to tune in frequently to the World Service to hear news and other programmes in my mother tongue. There was an excellent programme called 'Masterpiece' which unfortunately ended right after I became aware of it. And it was small comfort to listen to the left-wing ideologues who leave no room for moderate voices on the World Service with their snubbing of their adversaries and promotion of their political fellow-travellers, as when they virtually ignored the Republican primaries before the last US election while following the Obama-Clinton contest with breathless anticipation; and as when they completely ignored George W. Bush's visit to Israel at the beginning of those primaries.

    I was unfortunately also glued to the World Service during one of the most shameful episodes in its history - the pro-Hezbollah and anti-Israel bias it displayed during the 2006 war, with BBC journalists going out of their way to sneer at Israel while being careful to treat Hezbollah with fawning respect, taking as gospel the propaganda Hezbollah pumped out, and ensuring that their audience's attention was continually directed towards Israel's attacks on Hezbollah with very little in the reverse direction.

    The World Service even went so far as to haul one of their anti-Israel activists from her post in Johannesburg to contribute to the onslaught: once she'd landed up in a Lebanese village she proceeded to wildly exaggerate the extent of the damage the Israelis had done to the village.

    And when Obama came to power you yourself posed the following question, "Will Obama get tough with Israel," as if Israel is the intransigent one, despite the Israeli withdrawals from Sinai and Gaza - which were met by Mubarak turning a blind eye to weapons-smuggling from Egypt into Gaza and Hamas continuing to use those weapons against Israeli military and civilians - and Israel's numerous and generous peace offers, spurned by the Palestinians.

    So I come back to my original question: any regrets? Any perception that the BBC and you yourself might have been fairer and more even-handed in your reporting - which was always and inevitably couched in left-wing dogma?

  • Comment number 4.

    Questions being asked. What to expect? Answers? Or a closing? I of course refer to the article headline.

  • Comment number 5.

  • Comment number 6.

    QuietOakTree, I have no idea what you are talking about and no intention of clicking on your links if you can't be bothered to explain yourself.

  • Comment number 7.

    # 6 TrueToo

    The links explain themselves if you read them.

    "and more even-handed in your reporting - which was always and inevitably couched in left-wing dogma?"

    Your ignorance of the role of ´left wing dogma´ in fighting anti-semitism and Fascism is apparent.

    If you claim the Right to ´ethnic cleansing´etc. for Israel -- then you must give it to others. The ´lefties and Commies´are consistent on their stance --and your #3 suggests you are also consistent.

    You have just complained that neither the BBC nor Mr. Lustig are willing to give Fascism (from any source)-- its ´justifiable´ Right to be propagated over the air waves -- and thus spread its hatreds.

    Many fought and died in the Spanish Civil War to stop Fascism --the ´lefties and Commies´-- non-Jews and Jews


    -- just don´t use their valor and sacrifice (in any battle) to vilify their ideals -- while attempting to claim they fought (and are still fighting) the wrong war.

    If any descendants of ´Cable Street´participants are occupying Palestinian land --I am sure you would understand any outcry ?

    --or have you not thought that far ?

  • Comment number 8.

    #6 TrueToo

    -- " and no intention of clicking on your links "

    -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qMGuYjt6CP8

    --not even to hear a lone voice in the wilderness ?

  • Comment number 9.

    In the race to who gets the last word, I find I am minded of the new BBC practice of, under prompting, pointing elsewhere across its extensive media estate to claim that the context was made clear, if not where it probably could, and professionally should have been.

    In turn prompting a link of my own in complement...


    Funny in satire; more of a concern in compelled funding 'news' via the edit suite filter.

    It suggest standards on par with Labour pols being granted special dispensation to invoke Godwin's Law when it suits some.

    £4Bpa can buy a lot of company too.

  • Comment number 10.

  • Comment number 11.

  • Comment number 12.

    No, I look upon the person doing the press conference as something like a trained dog. If you throw a question that s/he is not prepared to catch, it may be entertaining to watch the look of confusion before comes the inevitable: "I'll get back to you on that.", which of course never happens.
    I do find the press is getter more aggressive, and I am pleased about that.

  • Comment number 13.

    'I do find the press is getting more aggressive, and I am pleased about that.'

    Were the word more 'tenacious', I'd tend to agree. Then of course there still is the issue of where and when they are tenacious, and when not.

    I just came here from the Newsnight FaceBook feed. Now a sorry backwater compared to the blog that preceded their move to this and twitter.

    It has taken them over a week to update it with a few stories that could hardly be described as 'top of mind'.

    Perhaps conscious of being a bit too coy for a professional 'news' entity they have alluded to one story they still appear to wish would go away.

    However posting a link to an old 'broadcast only' post in its own right, that managed all of 42 comments before being closed as the topic still unveils new and damning material daily, perhaps served more to confirm the points many outside the BBC have and are making, as opposed to answering anything.

    Power does need to be held to account. Even the powers that presume this does not apply to them.

  • Comment number 14.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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