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Party Politics In Trouble: Boring And Stage Managed

Graham Stringer, MP, on how a depressing conference season threatens democracy

Published on October 21st 2011.

Party Politics In Trouble: Boring And Stage Managed

THE main party political conference season finished two weeks ago; three weeks, three party conferences, one thousand and one yawns.

Anyone looking at the Lib Dems’ Birmingham conference might have imagined that a political pied piper had lead off all their young members 

I doubt that anyone can recall a single important statement or event from these increasingly lifeless and irrelevant jamborees.  If there is one memory that might endure it is of the spat between Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke and Home Secretary Theresa May, about the evidential importance of Maya the moggie’s role in the domestic life of a gay Bolivian shoplifter, who was seeking to avoid deportation. 

Graham Stringer MP for Blackley and BroughtonGraham Stringer MP for Blackley and BroughtonIt hardly seems worth assembling thousands of political activists, journalists, and commercial lobbyists when the only impact on the public consciousness is ‘pussygate’.

Yet we live in wildly exciting and frightening times presenting political parties with enough problems to debate continuously for  a year (Yes, I know that is probably an even less attractive proposition than the three weeks of anaemic and stage managed discussion).

The £120 billion pounds of public money spent on the Health Service is about to be taken out of democratic control and offered to profiteering American health companies. The vast majority of Liberal Democrat delegates wanted to withdraw their support for this policy, but were prohibited by arcane conference rules.

Euroland is collapsing, threatening not just the British but the World economy and the democracies of Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy. Most Conservatives have strong opinions about this but were not allowed to express them.

In my experience the majority of Labour delegates are opposed to this country’s continued participation in two wars, but again their views were stifled.

One result of focusing on the irrelevant, at the expense of the relevant, is a decline in attendance at conferences. The Conservative’s couldn’t find enough delegates to listen to their leader’s speech – and he’s the current Prime Minister. This would have been unthinkable at any time in the past.

Anyone looking at the Lib Dems’ Birmingham conference might have imagined that a political pied piper had lead off all their young members leaving only grey haired and longed toothed delegates to rattle round the conference centre.

Pied Piper leading young Lib Dems from Birmingham to a better placePied Piper leading young Lib Dems from Birmingham to a better place

While there were plenty of young people at Labour’s conference, many were ex Lib Dems, it also was much diminished, with more than a third of its MPs finding they had better things to do.    

This self emasculation by our political parties is seriously damaging to the fabric of democracy.

People and particularly young people concerned about the future of their community, country or indeed the world, look to join political parties sympathetic to their views in which they can debate and develop new policies. If this avenue is closed at best they join single issue pressure groups and at worst apathy, cynicism and disillusionment set in.

This perversion of the political processes has happened because the wrong lessons were learned from the first Labour party conference I attended in Blackpool in 1976. It took place against the background of another financial crisis and resulted in a spellbinding and traumatic event.

Dennis Healey, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, rushed back to the conference to justify his decision to ask for a strings attached loan from the International Monetary Fund. He was only allowed three minutes to make his case and he got a very mixed response from the floor of the hall. He was applauded and jeered in almost equal measure: jeered because the IMF were demanding huge cuts in public expenditure and services and cheered for his bravery. This moment was a crucial turning point in the Labour Party’s history and the role of all political conferences.

The lesson learnt was that party’s that appear split at conference, lose elections therefore conference organisers have energetically and effectively removed controversies. But here is the paradox; if you try and take politics out of politics, the annual political gathering becomes irrelevant. The electorate sense manipulation and chicanery, and disengage.

The real choice is not between the chaotic scenes of 1976 and the soporific events of this autumn. There is, dare I say it, a middle and better way where polite and robust debate is encouraged.  That is essential. Political relevance also requires bravery from leaders in dealing with contemporary issues. Kinnock’s attack on Militant and Blair’s first conference speech abolishing Clause IV were such occasions.

I have two simple suggestions that should lead to improvements. The House of Commons now allows electronic petitioning to determine a small number of debates, the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, this year summer riots and the proposal to have an in - out referendum in Europe have been proposed and agreed for debate. The three parties should give the public the same access to their conference programmes.

Three weeks is too long for the party political season, they should meet at the same time for two or three days and have to compete for media attention. This would make it easier for more people to attend and be much more fun. It would also ensure that MP’s spent more time in the Commons doing their job.   

YawnThe national symbol comments on Conference season

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the Whalley RangerOctober 21st 2011.

Striking fact that only a quarter of conference attendees where Tory delegates.

Unless someone tackles this 'lobbying business', we are heading straight where the US is at the moment - political fundraising calls all the shots, democracy is BOUGHT!

Don't be fooled by the figure head, that went pear-shaped a long time ago, straight after Carter.

AnonymousOctober 22nd 2011.

One big problem is the whole idea of a career politician...they have more training in how to manage the media and avoid straight answers than how real businesses or local authorities operate.

Just look at the cabinet - they bounce around from health to defense to business to the environment...judged on their ability to play the system rather than develop a true understanding of the department they have responsibility for.

I also blame the media to a degree, politicians are forbidden from making mistakes - they have their characters assassinated at any possible opportunity. Until there is more respect how can we possibly get the caliber of representatives required...nobody decent wants to go into politics because its probably one of the worst jobs going. We all love to whinge about them but nobody wants to do their job.

Kevin PeelOctober 24th 2011.

I'm delighted to be able to agree with Graham on something! I think there are ore things that can be done though rather than just allowing e-petitions and putting them on the same days.

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