Thursday, 26 September 2013

How to stop conference being boring

Have a good conference, did you?

I was unable to join you this year but watched much of the proceedings on TV. And to be frank, it was thoroughly tedious. Most of the speeches were read from scripts in a flat monotone. Rarely did any debate come to life. Rarely did anyone enthuse or persuade.

And it occurred that, if an old hack like me can find the conference boring, how much more boring must it seem to a lay audience? Indeed, all of the party conferences have become a tedium-fest, and if Britain’s political parties are trying to accelerate their slow death, they are going the right way about it.

It is unlikely that BBC Parliament’s viewing figures will be troubling the audience ratings during the conference season. The only event that will remain in the average viewer’s memory is UKIP MEP Godfrey Bloom’s altercation with Michael Crick.

I have been going to party conferences regularly since the Liberal Assembly in Llandudno in 1976. There have been some important changes in the intervening 37 years.

First, the action has gradually shifted from debates in the main auditorium to the fringe. Like the Edinburgh Festival, the fringe has outgrown the formal proceedings, so that there is more of interest to be found in fringe meetings and the informal politicking in the caf├ęs, bars and stalls area. Media coverage rarely reflects this development, even though modern lightweight camera equipment makes it easy to do (unlike in the 1970s when TV cameras were huge, immobile things fixed to rostrums in front of the stage).

Second, the art of oratory has died because modern politics no longer calls for this skill. Public meetings were once a regular feature of political campaigning but if you held one now hardly anyone would turn up. At the same time, the huge growth in the number of TV and radio stations means that knowing how to do a broadcast interview is a more important skill. For evidence of the death of oratory, consider Danny Alexander’s lifeless speech at this year’s conference or the way Sarah Teather’s attempts at jokes fell flat at previous ones.

Third, genuine debate has been increasingly edged out by the need to find room on the agenda for set piece speeches and presentations. At least there remains some debate at Liberal Democrat conferences (despite the pressure from the leader’s office). At Labour and Conservative conferences, there is no democratic debate or decision-making at all.

Fourth, the professions of public relations and political advising, which scarcely existed until the 1980s, have grown like Topsy. In the 1970s, each MP’s staff comprised one secretary. Nowadays, backbenchers typically employ four staff while government ministers also have an army of special advisers (‘SpAds’). Such advisers specialise in leaving nothing to chance. The result is a growth in the culture of spin and the soundbite, the dominance of cynical media management, and the death of spontaneity.

And fifth, no conference these days is complete without an accordionist:



What can be done about this? Apart from getting rid of the accordions, obviously.

There is no quick fix but one remedy is to strip out of the formal agenda as much as possible of the non-spontaneous elements. That means getting rid of all the set piece speeches and presentations, apart from the leader’s speech at the end of the conference (and also the occasional guest speeches by visiting foreign liberal leaders).

If any government ministers want to deliver speeches, let them take their chances in the rough and tumble of debate. Or speak at a fringe meeting. Or do a TV interview outside the hall. Anything but clog up the agenda with the sheer tedium of their over-rehearsed speeches.

The belligerent youths in the leader’s office wouldn’t like it, of course. Were the Federal Conference Committee to carry out such a purge, one of these SpAds would doubtless turn up at the next meeting of the committee to demand a retraction of this policy. In which case the committee should respond with a short message about sex and travel.

Oh, and one other thing. A trapdoor should be installed under the speakers’ rostrum, controlled by a big lever next to the session chair. Either that, or wire up the rostrum to the mains.

Postscript: This blog post has won Liberal England’s Phrase of the Day award.

1 comment:

  1. I was there and I do not agree! First of all most of conference was debating motions and some were very controversial. Conference could have easily voted against he leadership on some of them and unlike previous conferences I would like to congratulate FCC for giving us the chance to debate them. Secondly Tim Farron really is a great orator and gave an excellent speech at conference. You might disagree with him, sometimes I do as well, but he is not bland.
    The problem with conference this time was not its blandness, it was the way it voted and the direction the party is going in.

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