The annual political party conference season in Britain, drawn to a conclusion in 2011 by the SNP in Perth and the Scottish Greens in Aberdeen, has always been a trade-off between public participation and public relations.
These days, the number of actual decisions taken by activists and representatives is minimal, while the amount of time spent on smooth-talking via television, radio, webcasting and blogging has risen exponentially – particularly as far as the ‘big three’ Westminster parties are concerned.
(The Greens and Plaid Cymru are mostly ignored by the major media commentators. But this year the SNP have been impossible to sideline, as they are in government in Scotland, and are leading the charge over a referendum on Scottish independence or ‘devo max’.)
The real aim of these yearly jamborees, one ‘big three’ organiser suggested in an unguarded, metaphorically mixed moment, is to “keep the troops’ chins up” while “not letting too many cats out of the bag”.
So bad vibes and dodgy felines are a definite no-no. But unfortunately that advice appeared not quite to have reached Home Secretary Theresa May as she strode to the podium at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“I’m not making this up,” she declared, while suggesting that an illegal Bolivian immigrant had been allowed to stay in Britain, aided by the Human Rights Act, because he had a cat. It turned out that he was an overstayer, not an illegal entrant, and that the moggy – though given a walk-on part by the judge in a jocular aside – was hardly decisive. But the tale still went down well with the party faithful because it reinforced what they wanted to believe.
Far from being upbraided for her creativity with la verité, it was Mrs May’s critic, Justice Secretary Ken Clarke, who found himself chided for not unreasonably suggesting that this attempt to rubbish legal process was unhelpful and artless.
Then again, we should not forget that it is that nice Mr Clarke who has overseen massive cuts and wholesale restrictions to civil legal aid, following the precedent set by the previous Labour government. These changes will very severely inhibit both the quantity and quality of justice available to poor and vulnerable people in England and Wales.
Sadly, this has not hit the headlines with anything like the force of the Home Secretary’s caricatured cat – illustrating the way in which the major party conference circuses have mostly become purveyors of smoke signals via the media, rather than bread and roses for the people.
What is to be done? Some have suggested abandoning these annual charades, others their radical resculpting. “Party conferences as we know them are completely broken and unless reform is kicked into gear straight away they are in serious risk of abolition,” declares elections expert Gareth Knight.
Few are confident that party managers are really willing to let democracy flourish again in their theatres of power. But the expansion of ‘grassroots zones’ on the fringes indicates paths by which ordinary members might attempt to wrest some control from the apparatchiks.
The problem, as Knight points out, is that the success of the fringe in grabbing attention depends upon the health of the core around which they are organised. So maybe breakaway movements will be needed. Or even attention to the inventive chaos of the Greens, whose leader Caroline Lucas made perhaps the most politically substantial speech of conference season – to an audience touchingly unmanicured for television.
Certainly the Occupy protests, environmental movements and civic revolutions across the globe are suggesting that there is a whole world of politics available outwith the narrow party perspectives that still dominate the electoral machinery of Western democracies.
Party posturing is looking increasingly irrelevant. A spirit of change coming from a very different direction is in the air.
© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. This article is adapted from his regular column in Third Way, the Christian magazine of social and cultural comment. http://www.thirdwaymagazine.co.uk/