Martin Vickers is the Member of Parliament for Cleethorpes.
I have a confession to make – I like Party Conference! Some of my parliamentary colleagues, it has to be said, are less enthusiastic. I attended my first in 1976. For a Young Conservative, as we were then called (why on earth did we change the name?) to see the leaders of our Party perform on the platform and to rub shoulders with them in the bars was a great thrill. The highlight of the Conference was Michael Heseltine’s famous comments about the Labour army marching "left, left, left." We mustn’t deny our supporters who freely give their time to deliver leaflets, and the like, the one annual opportunity of mixing with our leaders and of putting across their concerns directly to Ministers.
Back in the 1970s and 80s, Executives and Branch Committee meetings would sit and ponder for hours about the wording of resolutions from Associations that would appear in the Conference Handbook. These would give a flavour of what the grassroots were thinking and – it’s hard to believe nowadays – representatives would be balloted on which two would be debated in the main Conference Hall. Usually the ones chosen would favour the return of capital punishment or some other issue that would make delegates roar and conference organisers cringe.
It needed to change; but have we reached the stage that what goes on in the main auditorium, in between the main speakers, is so formulaic (dare I say boring?) that, quite simply, it is not encouraging people to attend the sessions. This is in no way to denigrate what we hear about some worthy initiative or another, but politics is about debate and the exchange of competing ideas. Talking heads on the sofa just doesn’t work.
There has been much talk about the fact that only around 4,000 out of the 11,000 passes issued were to party members. I don’t mind that there were 7,000 lobbyists and journalists there – after all, we are trying to get our message out to the world outside and if they also offset the cost of staging the Conference, so much the better.
What I do mind about is that we are making it too expensive for many party members to attend on a regular basis. Whatever the arguments about meeting in our big cities, what cannot be disputed is that it is more expensive. Greater effort must go into making the event more accessible for more members.
Of course there are security concerns, but surely we can find a way to make it easier and cheaper for day visitors? Yes, staging a conference of this size is costly, but £80 just to register is off-putting, and the steep increases as the date gets closer are outrageous.
Inevitably the mood of conference varies depending on what point we are at in the political cycle, and this year was no exception. The fringe events, though were lively and allowed the real views of the membership to emerge.
Of course, the general public have different priorities to those who join political parties and we must always focus on the world outside; if we could win elections by just appealing to party members it would be simple, but the membership are a sounding board. So let us make it easier for them to participate and to hear some genuine debate. Not just in the fringe, but in the main arena. If we don’t; how will the next William Hague emerge?