I know the summer holidays are now upon us but before long Labour party members (along with the Tories and Lib Dems) will be turning their attention to annual conference. 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 Labour need do away with its annual conference altogether but I do feel that we can greatly 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. A significant number of delegates I spoke to over the past few years have told me that that they had often 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.The party understands that it needs 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 permanently from hosting conference in traditional seaside resorts like Blackpool, Brighton or Bournemouth. The last annual conference 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.
Or am I being too timid, too conservative in my ideas for change? What do others think