It feels like a long time ago, but it’s only ten days or so since the Conservative Party was mocking Labour’s conference. Look at the Opposition – they weren’t even having a proper debate about their Brexit policy, still less a vote on it! What poor chumps Labour members must be, denied a say on their Party’s most important policy positions.
The last few days have shown why this wasn’t a very wise criticism. The Labour conference did not give Party members a proper say on Brexit, but the Conservative conference does not give Party members a say on anything at all.
There are very few ways in which Conservative Party Conference is really a conference at all. It’s many things – a reunion, a tribal gathering, a four-day party, a convention – but it is not meaningfully a conference, for the same reason that the attendees are not “delegates”. There are no motions, debates, or ballots. There are no propositions or oppositions for one idea or another. There are precious few speeches, and those that are put on are mostly ministerial performances aimed at the national media, more oratorical press release than engagement with the membership. In Manchester, there were slots for “contributions from Party Members”, but these were carefully curated in advance as part of the wider PR effort to demonstrate the diversity of the Party, nothing more.
That’s why attendance in the main hall itself has dwindled; this year, many speakers addressed an auditorium that featured far too many empty seats. And who can blame the members for shunning the opportunity to be obedient ‘meat in the room’? Surely in this age of advancing automation it would be easier to ship in a full audience of applause robots, and end the expectation that dedicated and experienced activists should give up their time to fulfil the sole function of clapping at the right times?
Not everywhere inside the secure zone was bereft of an audience, however. Across a range of host organisations and a wide variety of topics, the fringe was ram-packed (like a Virgin Train carrying Jeremy Corbyn, except true). Almost all of ConservativeHome’s events saw people turned away from over-full rooms, with many of those inside standing or sitting in the aisles. Speaking to others – think-tanks, pressure groups and charities – on the fringe, most of them had the same experience. “Standing room only” has become a cliché tweet for fringe meeting organisers, but this time it really was the case.
What was going on? Consider what the conference fringe offers. Speeches that proffer actual opinions. Panellists who disagree with one another and debate the merit of competing beliefs and policies. Opportunities for Party members to ask questions, without the organisers picking the acceptable topics in advance, and – shock – the (normally fulfilled) expectation that the speakers, from experts and philosophers to MPs and Ministers, will actually answer them. Unsurprisingly, engaging discussion, a genuine battle of ideas, and the opportunity to participate rather than to be used as a backdrop appeals to the members of the Conservative Party. The Tory conference has become like the Edinburgh Festival: officially the central event is what it’s all about, but in reality the audiences and the value are to be found on the fringe.
This year, that seemed all the more true. As I wrote last week, the passage of time and the demands of government have led the Conservative Party to mine out its store of ideas and to burn through many of its best people. A search is therefore underway for new ideas and new voices. Unable to find them in the main hall, and without a chance to either propose them or demand them through the formal proceedings of the conference, the grassroots are looking elsewhere.
The responsibility for this necessary regeneration of the Right will largely fall on the wider Conservative movement. George Freeman has his Big Tent ideas festival, and I’m told that other MPs are planning new policy initiatives and new organisations to consider and design the future of the Party and country. Activists, too, are taking a strong interest in working out what should come next and are looking for ways to join the debate. The Conservative Party itself should help, not hinder, that process – a good start would be to make its conference live up to the name, by granting its members a voice and the power to make decisions once more.