George Bernard Shaw, Hillaire Belloc and GK Chesterton

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

The Pointlessness of the Party Conference

or: Why we should all listen to Radio 3 in September

Recently, I have been having breakfast to the sound of BBC Radio 3. There are a number of reasons for this. The first is that I like classical music. The Radio 3 breakfast show is not for die-hard purists though, playing single movements and shorter pieces, making at least some concession to the time of day. (No one’s got the best part of an hour to listen to Mahler’s Fifth while eating cornflakes. That many cornflakes is very unhealthy.)

The second reason is that I have small children, and being a middle class parent, I am keen to make my four-year old and two-year old appreciate The Arts whilst they have no choice in the matter.

But the third reason is that the show is mostly music, and very little talking. In particular, there is very little news. Radio 3 would always rather talk about a composer who died in 1871, than a politician who’s desperately trying to get us to eat healthily or vote for them. On Radio 3, one can avoid the tedious, playground taunting that passes for interviews on Radio 4. One can avoid the incessant reading out of knee-jerk texts and emails from uninformed listeners on Five Live. It’s lovely.

Radio 3 really comes into its own in September, when party conferences are in full swing. The Media loves to give these events their full attention and hours of coverage and analysis, but they are completely self-defeating. A party conference can only have two real purposes.

Pic by  Maarten Dirkse
The first is a feel-good knees-up with back-slapping speeches where politicians queue up to offer their praise to each other. The party faithful get to feel like they’re part of things and everyone goes home happy, inspired and unchallenged. A bit like a Sunday church service when it’s not quite doing its job. (It’s fine to be inspired, but we all know there’s more to it than that.)

The second more useful purpose of a party conference is an introspective search for the party’s soul. Difficult questions should be asked. Deep philosophical issues should be raised, and then examined, discussed and debated well into the night with a single malt (with someone sober taking notes in case the single malt wins the argument on the night).

The problem, as we have said, is that party conferences are open to the media, and frequently broadcast to the nation – or at least the parts of the nation whose TVs are stuck on BBC2 and can’t seem to get their Freeview/Sky box to change channel. Because the politicians feel under the glare of the nation’s gaze, they act on their mistaken view that the nation likes to see parties united.

In the past, for example, Tories have thought people won’t vote for them if they appear divided on the issue of Europe. In fact, those who don’t vote Tory do so for a variety of gut-felt, prejudicial or intellectual reasons, good and bad. Division over Europe is not really one of them. Divisions within religions usually look bad, especially when they end in obscene and hateful language or bloodshed. But everyone expects politicians to at least resort to the former, so why the big deal over presenting a united front over everything?

The result is a self-defeating party conference in which every speech given is designed to have four qualities; vague acceptability to the people in the room; a blandness that it appears is part of mainstream policy and therefore makes the party look united; a lack of gaffes to avoid the attention of the journalists who will report verbal slips with pathetic childish glee; and an appeal to the people who aren’t there and were never going to vote for them anyway. In short, it’s like trying to conduct a Presbyterian church service, in a synagogue, live on Al Jazeera. It is, at best, a waste of time.

Party conferences should be private affairs, with doors closed and the press excluded. Politicians, SPADs and wonks should lock themselves in a big room and work out what they’re about and why – while the rest of us listen to Mahler’s Fifth eating cornflakes, which can’t be any harder work than watching The Daily Politics during conference season.

This article, and many like it, can be found in my book, Death by Civilisation, available on Amazon, and as an e-book, here.

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