If you are someone who has spent many years enjoying
conference, you could be forgiven for having stopped at home for the last few
years – or at least, that’s where I thought you were.
The conference emphasis has shifted from having been a
special time for activists to become involved and have their voices heard, to a
week when the lobbying and political class get to eat, drink and party on fat
corporate expense accounts.
Gone are the older couples walking around with plastic
carrier bags stuffed with a conference programme, literature, political hand
outs and a conspicuous hand-written time table of which meetings to attend,
popping out of a jacket top pocket. In the plastic bag, the programme was pencilled
in with stars next to the fringe meetings which provide free drinks and sandwiches
at lunchtime, just in case there was no time to get back to the hotel.
Students asking awkward questions on the fringe are no
more, and you will have to look long and hard to find an association Chairman
attending to check out potential candidates for an upcoming selection.
Instead, meetings are packed with smart thirty-somethings in pin-striped suits asking complex and detailed questions, and
expecting answers of a similarly comprehensive nature in order to report back to
their clients – the subtext reading, "do you know how many bottles of Pinot Grigio I had to drink at your expense in order to obtain this information?"
Activists from associations across the country once used
conference to make friends and compare notes, year after year. Where are they
Conference was the annual Conservative family gathering
by the seaside. When the sun went down and the adults went to bed, the
youngsters stayed up and seriously partied until dawn. The front lounge of the Highlife
at Bournemouth was a sight to behold at 5am as staff cleared away the last
of the revellers into the remnants of the dark night, just as Nicky Campbell and
his technicians picked their way through the discarded glasses, to set up for
the first radio interview at six.
Conference is now dominated by lobbyists and business
and held in international conference centres such as Birmingham and Manchester. There are no low cost B+Bs looking to
extend the season with attractive cut price offers. It’s a conference hotel or
nothing. With the cost of a pass, travel, food and accommodation, there is
little change from £1000, which means the majority of activists simply cannot
afford to attend.
Or, so I thought.
If anyone caught the news last week and saw the UKIP conference
in Birmingham maybe, like me, you saw the people who used to attend our
conference sat in the audience? Did you
see the row upon row of the men and women who used to deliver our leaflets and
canvass our voters? Maybe it suddenly dawned on you why our
membership has diminished to extraordinarily low levels as UKIP’s increases.
If we want to bring our members back, maybe we should
start by giving them a reason to belong? A platform to air their views? A chance to be on television, letting the
world know they want a referendum on Europe? Maybe we should acknowledge that conference
was always about the activist and not about big business.
This year, for the first time, regional BBC stations are
not sending journalists to conference. If even the BBC are getting fed up with the
sterile corporate atmosphere, maybe it’s time for the party chairman to realise
we've got it wrong and if we want to win back our members, we should take a look
at how UKIP have nicked them in the first place.
Just as we were hell-bent on alienating our activists,
UKIP were focused on providing them with a home, and as I spotted one plastic
carrier bag after another, I realised, it appears to have worked.