I know that the autumn season of party conferences represents a tradition that is every bit as venerable as that of fish and chips on the pier, Brighton rock and Blackpool and Manchester 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 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. Last year a delegate from Scotland told me that she had taken a week’s annual leave to attend her first and (given what it was costing her) probably her last conference. Speaking to delegates travelling up on the train this morning I am struck by how many 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. What the other parties do is up to them but at a time when Labour desperately needs to renew is structure and and reconnect with its members and with the electorate at large it needs to think long and hard about how it organises its traditional annual shindig.
Here are a few 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 ordinary working people to attend, and therefore participate in, what is the party’s largest annual event.
2. Seek to make the conference more inter-active - fewer set-piece speeches and more question and answer sessions with Ministers, MPs and party officials.
3. Give all new members and members with 25+ years membership, the opportunity to attend conference at a substantially reduced cost.
4. Continue to hold conference in major cities across the UK and move away from the traditional seaside venues.
Any other suggestions?