All parties’ conferences look a little bit weird to their opponents, and very weird indeed to the electorate at large. This is for the very good reason that, frankly, they are quite weird events.
It’s part of human nature that one way people bind themselves together in a cause is by what looks from the outside to be oddball clannishness (and indeed often is oddball clannishness). Most of these oddities – including infamous strangeness like the Lib Dems’ Glee Club singalong – are fun to poke at a bit, but essentially fruitless political ground for the other parties because they all have some similarly odd element in their own internal culture.
A “look, they’re weird” strategy is nothing more than Mutually Assured Destruction, performed in front of an electorate who understandably reply “they’re not the only ones”.
That’s not to say that the party conferences can’t be an opportunity for serious opposition research. You just have to be able to tell the difference between what matters and what doesn’t.
Because they take place in public, often on live TV, they represent a weak spot in the armour of any party, in an age of tightly controlled media operations. The split audience and competing purpose of the event – rallying and pleasing hardcore members in the hall and on the fringe, while communicating your top-line message to the voters at large around the country – creates the possibility of fault lines.
Suddenly, for a few days each year, we get a chance to see at least a glimpse of how a party talks internally about itself, its politics, and the country.
In Labour’s case, there are already some signs that Corbynite over-excitement about the forthcoming dictatorship of the proletariat is at risk of breaking through. The Mirror reports that the leadership is opposing a proposed motion to reintroduce the old Clause 4, committing the party to nationalisation of the means of production.
Tellingly, this opposition isn’t because they recognise that it would be a bad idea, but that doing so at this stage – ie before an election – is “jumping the gun”. Far better to wheel out John McDonnell in his reassuringly chintzy lounge for the Sunday broadcasters for now, then get properly stuck into the messy and costly business of ‘real socialism’ once he has moved into Downing Street.
So that’s the thing to watch for over the next few days: Labour’s battle to keep its mouth shut and resist the temptation to blurt out how drastic its plans for power are.
And then, of course, it’s the Conservatives’ turn to run the conference gauntlet.