UPDATE: Reports from Manchester suggest only about a third of people in the conference hall during David Cameron’s speech yesterday were party members. That would be the reason why there was deadly silence halfway through his speech when he stopped for an expected round of applause then quickly moved on when the Conservative Party leader realised no such rapture was forthcoming.
No wonder Dave and Sam didn’t do the usual walk to the back of the hall to milk the standing ovation for as long as possible. Once the first four rows were cleared (the seats where members were actually present) the PM and his wife quickly scarpered stage left.
Yep, it’s that time of year again: conference season. I attended the Conservative Party conference every year from 2003 to 2009 and I loved it (well until 2007!). The first few years were the best – we were either in Blackpool or Bournemouth and there was something quintessentially British about descending on a windswept seaside resort, staying in a B&B and having a Full English each morning, walking just down the road to the conference venue to listen to and debate the hot political issues of the day. Then we would go and gossip in the local public houses over a ploughman’s and a beer or two. No wonder the mayor of Blackpool was crying (literally crying) when the Conservatives held their conference at the Winter Gardens for the last time in 2007. It’s no wonder – Blackpool Borough Council, by hosting the Tory Party every two years, were bringing in millions of pounds into the local economy – out-of-season!
But then David Cameron and his Eton chums thought “slumming” it by the sea each year really wasn’t right-on metropolitan elite enough. You can hear Dave and George thinking Bournemouth was just too Tory and Blackpool, well, oh dear – Blackpool. So the Conservative leadership shortly after Dave’s elections decided the conference should be in multicultural right-on Manchester and Birmingham as part of their “detoxification” of the party.
The grassroots moaned at the time about how expensive the hotel rooms would be – with even Travelodge charging £200 a night. But this didn’t seem to be understood by the multi-millionaires in the leadership team. Manchester and Birmingham were also great for the media as they could easily access the cities from London.
But there is a
n upside downside. The high number of members who travelled all the way to Blackpool now don’t come to Manchester and Birmingham despite it being easier to get there compared to the huge amount of time it took to travel to the Winter Gardens. Let’s say that again: more members travelled to Blackpool when the Conservative Party conference was held in this great town than they do when the same event takes place in Birmingham, smack bang right in the middle of the country with excellent transport links in every direction.
The Conservative Party Conference at the ICC in Birmingham or Manchester Central (I attended both in the noughties) is now a soulless affair, attended by more lobbyists than Tory members. And that’s just what conference has become: a market-stall of lobbyists trying to influence (shadow) ministers and their teams to influence government policy to help the firms lobbyists represent make more money. It’s that simple.
Stuff the party membership. Who cares anyway when there is money to be made? Well, let me explain to Mr Cameron why he should.
Without members in the political party, you’ll have no party in government. It is the members who pound the streets, knocking on doors and delivering leaflets trying to get wannabe MPs elected in seats they knew nothing about before they started to look for somewhere to be selected. It is the members who pay for all that campaigning (the agent, the printers, the office costs) by attending fundraising dinners and paying a 200% markup for a lukewarm supper of chicken and the chance to hear from someone who actually made it to become an MP because of the members who knocked on the doors and delivered the leaflets for them.
What is the thanks for all this voluntary effort? A party leadership which belittles their views, does not represent their values and locks them out of any debate at party conference.
Wouldn’t it be a good idea to treat your members a little better, Dave? You never know, you might win an election if you do.