Submitted 8th July 2014 for publication a week later in Chelsea & Kensington Today
Parliament Squared by Derek Wyatt
The Conference Season is Dead
As Parliament limps to a close for its shortened recess (MPs return for barely two weeks in early September before the Conference season causes a major rush to the seaside) the media is readying itself for the longest run in for the next General Election which is now set for 7th May, 2015. Unusually for the British Constitution, such as it is, the date has been written in since late 2010. This is a first.
The old rule was when you were likely to win, the Prime Minister would call the election after four years in office as in (Tories) 1983 and 1987 but not 1992 and 1997 (lost) and again (Labour) 2001 and 2005 but not 2010 (lost). Five years is too long for a party to be in power and our Coalition government is already on its last legs. This past parliamentary session has seen many MPs head for their constituencies immediately after PM’s Question Time which finishes at 1230 on Wednesdays. There have been fewer votes at 7pm that day and almost no votes at all on Thursdays.
The Conference season is another institution passed its sell by date. Tradition has it that the order for September sees the TUC first up, followed by the Lib Dems, the Labour Party and the Tories with the Greens and UKIP sandwiched in between. It seems odd that irrespective of which party is in power that the Tories always go last.
Conference is divided like the Edinburgh Festival into two. The first is what you see on your television screens: deadly dull speeches and arcane rules belonging to the 19th century not the 21st. The second is what goes on at the Fringe; this has become by default, the only place where you will hear politicians talking sense. As such it has become a hunting ground for journalists as they search out a story.
In the past twenty years as parties seek to milk more and more money from their conferences (both Tory and Labour net close to £1m from fees) another circuit has developed called “The Dinner”. A convivial supper with a Secretary of State will cost companies £25k a pop.
There are only ever two speeches worth listening to – the Chancellor’s and the Prime Minister’s. In my day, Gordon Brown would lay our his hopes for the next year(s) on Monday afternoon and on Tuesday he would be trumped by Tony Blair’s brilliance at public speaking where over an hour he would make it possible for us suspend our critical faculties. Nonetheless, we loved it and would give him the most extraordinary standing ovations.
The Tories have two very good speakers – David Cameron and Boris Johnson. George Osborne prefers to be judged more by his deeds (considerable) than his orations. To date their conference agenda has been muddled.
This September, they need to be aware of the Johnson factor. Boris is uncontrollable. The Tories wheel him out to raise funds at their parties and private events because he is the people’s champion (the Denis Skinner of the Tory Party) but his frame looms larger and larger. To challenge Cameron for Prime Minister after 2015, Johnson needs to win a seat in Parliament. And what better place to announce he has been selected (or about to be) than at the Tory Party Conference! Since this would hijack the whole event bet on this being resolved shortly.
If Clegg and Miliband want to rein in the excesses of UKIP they must both announce their support of an EU In-Out referendum; anything else would be politically foolish. If I was Miliband I would announce this change of heart during the short parliamentary session in early September.
Jean-Claude Juncker’s successful bid to become President of the EU Commission showed the lily-livered European leaders for what they are. This is a man who oversaw the minute state of Luxembourg host millions of off shore funds including Amazon, Google and the like. Fundamental reform of the EU is not on the front page of any European head of state except David Cameron. He should be congratulated for his stance.
All UK political parties need to rethink their conferences. They are held throughout the working week rather than over a long weekend. They are held in September after schools go back so hotels, B&Bs and restaurants hike their prices to double or treble the norm. There is little use of technology to make them more entertaining. Moving the conferences to April (most general elections happen in May) would give them greater weight and enable Parliament to run through from September to December without a break.
Finally, for some time now I have also wondered why the BBC gives the Conference season so much air time. Denied the wind bag of wall to wall television coverage, our political parties would have to rethink their product. BBC Radio has already shown the way.