As we go through the Party Conference season there has been a lot of comment in the press about declining Party Member attendance at the Party Conferences – their places being taken by lobbyist, pressure groups and other inhabitants of the Westminster Village.
I think the newspapers have overlooked one essential point – – the increasing “sanitization” of the proceedings.
Thirty years ago there were genuine debates in the main Conference Hall with rank and file party members given a proper opportunity to express their views. Not only did this give vibrancy and relevance to the proceedings it also gave younger members – potential parliamentary candidates – a chance to shine. A speech of the type given by William Hague in the early Thatcher years could never happen today.
Now everything is preplanned; “open sessions” where members, carefully selected anyway, are limited to a minute or so contribution are mixed with a series of well orchestrated so called “panel discussions”. At the same time the length of ministerial replies has if anything increased.
It should be noted that the media are not without responsibility for this sad state of affairs. Too often any speech from any member which did not toe the party line exactly was greeted with headlines containing words like “threat”, “split” and “challenge”. The leadership of the political parties have drawn the inevitable conclusion and planned Conference proceedings accordingly.
Party members denied any real chance to participate and faced with the additional expense of city centre (as opposed to seaside) locations are now voting with their feet.