The autumn season of party conferences represents a tradition every bit as venerable as that of fish and chips on the pier, Brighton rock and Blackpool tram cars. However there are many – me included – who believe that the party political conference, like the traditional British seaside holiday, is an institution that has seen better days. In fairness I am not suggesting that we need to do away with the annual conference altogether but I do feel that we can improve on its present format and organisation. One of the main reasons for reforming how, where and when conference is organised is what it ends up costing ordinary members – especially in terms of travel, accommodation and time. A delegate from Scotland told me that she has taken a week’s annual leave to attend her first and (given what it was costing her) probably her last conference. A significant number of delegates I spoke to told me that that they had been forced to take unpaid leave in order to attend conference as they simply could not get the time off work in any other way. Having a party conference that only takes place on weekdays means that the only people who can easily attend are the people who are paid to, some retired people (I stress ‘some’), people who are independently wealthy - or just fanatics. If we are serious about reforming and renewing as a party then we need to make conference much more accessible for working people and particularly young working people.
On a positive note, speaking at a Fabian fringe meeting Douglas Alexander made some encouraging comments about the need for the party to re-think exactly how it sets about reconnecting with the grass roots of the movement. What the other parties do is up to them but in a time of renewal and reconnection Labour needs to think long and hard about how it organises its traditional annual shindig. Here are three practical suggestions:
1. Hold conference over a long weekend - this could assist in helping the party to reach out and reconnect with ordinary party members. Holding the conference throughout a working week makes it very difficult for many working people to attend and therefore participate in what is the party’s largest annual event.
2. Move on from hosting conference in traditional seaside resorts like Blackpool, Brighton or Bournemouth. Labour’s 2006 party conference was held in Manchester and was viewed by most delegates as a huge success. Why not consider hosting future conferences in cities like Birmingham, Newcastle or Glasgow?
3. Emphasise that we are a ‘British’ party by occasionally holding annual conference in Scotland, Wales or even Northern Ireland.
I’m off to get some jellied eels and some rock – with luck I may not ever get the chance again!