Total Politics: Should we abolish party conferences?

No, says Sayeeda Warsi

“It gives me a spur for the coming year,” said Margaret Thatcher in 1982, explaining why the annual Conservative Party conference was so important to her. Thirty years on, conference is still the highlight of the political calendar – it’s our Glastonbury, minus the mud.
There are many reasons why conference is crucial. It’s the only opportunity for the professional, voluntary and parliamentary parties and our sister parties around the world to come together in one place.
This necessary pause in our political year is a chance to look back at the achievements of the past 12 months and to look ahead at our collective to-do list. Here we can be enthused, inspired and invigorated, be it by a stirring main-stage speech, a thought-provoking fringe event, or simply by the thoughts of a fellow party member you meet in one of the bars.
As well as being about strong internal debate, conference is an opportunity for our messages to echo beyond the auditoriums, a public showcase of what our party’s all about. And it’s a chance to get out of Westminster and to the places where politics is really done.
What makes a conference delegate feel truly part of something is a certain sense of history. There’s a feeling that here, great things begin. David Cameron’s notes-free speech in 2005 won him the leadership of the party. William Hague’s words from the platform as a 16-year-old launched his political career. And a chance conversation at the 1949 Llandudno conference between a friend of 23-year-old Margaret Roberts and an association chairman looking for a candidate set the grocer’s daughter on her remarkable political path.
However, when conference season begins, many say that the ritual should be scrapped. Some journalists slate the cheesy walk-on tunes, the corporate air, the media and the lobbyists (even though most of the grumbling emanates from speech-weary journalists themselves).
I do, however, concede that two criticisms are partly valid: the issues of cost and of providing the space for free, open debate. But these are not good enough reasons to scrap conference – they’re reasons to rise to those challenges.
In an era of ever-sophisticated conference facilities, where exhibitors, the media and delegates expect a more professional set-up, conference has moved to the areas where cheap B&Bs aren’t as readily available. Consequently, the combined cost of accommodation, conference pass and transport can equate to the cost of a holiday.
Some say this deters many members from attending. I’m sad to say, I’m sure they’re right. That’s why, each year, party co-chairman Andrew Feldman and I have devised special packages to reduce prices. This year, we’ve negotiated special deals, including train fares, one-day passes and special accommodation offers. Our mission is to make conference cheaper and more convenient, and therefore more appealing.
Regarding those who cite the conference ‘heyday’, when there was voting and much of the time was allocated to issues chosen by the members, I agree. Conference should be a conversation, not a lecture. I disagree with those who say that a free and open debate could lead to embarrassing episodes for the party in this 24/7 media age. We’re a broad church, and a broad church deserves a forum for proper discussion.
That’s why, year on year, I’m striving to achieve open debate for members. ‘Meet the Chairman’ sessions, of which I’ve held dozens, have proven that holding honest, frank discussions with members is rewarding, constructive and leads to improvements within the party.
So we’re going further: we’re bringing debate to the forefront of conference this year, holding special members-only events with ministers, and enabling members to shape our 2015 manifesto with more Conservative Policy Forum events, building on last year’s successful main stage CPF debates. Members will also have direct contact with top party officials to discuss the campaign strategy and the road to 2015.
Conference continuously evolves – better facilities, slicker presentations, more member involvement and interaction, embracing new technologies and IT – but despite the changes, one thing remains: members are the beating heart. Conference is their event. So once more, Andrew and I are planning a conference that will be more engaging and more entertaining.
Evolve, adapt and improve conference, yes. Scrap it? In the words of one of the event’s biggest advocates: no, no, no.