What's the point of party conferences?

The annual gatherings have quirky rituals and eccentric attendees but also act as 'important way-markers for our politics'

Conservative Party Conference 2022
Ben Wallace, Suella Braverman and James Cleverly at the 2022 Conservative Party conference in Birmingham
(Image credit: Getty Images/ Oli Scarff)

Another party conference season has kicked off amid the usual fanfare, but do these annual gatherings really matter anymore?  

Dubbed "the Glastonbury of the political calendar", autumn's conference season gives politicians and party members a chance to "discuss the state of the party and its future", said Anoosh Chakelian in The New Statesman in 2017. The Liberal Democrats' conference in Bournemouth is currently grabbing the spotlight, before the Tories take to the stage next week in Manchester, followed by Labour's gathering, in Liverpool. 

Each conference "works slightly differently", wrote Chakelian, but "all are covered by the media and result in policy announcements (and, with any luck, massive rows)".

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'Glastonbury for weirdos'

A more cutting nickname for party conference season is "Glastonbury for weirdos", said the BBC's Laura Kuenssberg, writing from the SNP's event last year. Speaking as a "fully paid-up political nerd myself", she continued, "there is an element of truth in that comic description" of these conferences. 

But while they "are a display of our political tribes like no other", with quirky rituals and eccentric attendees, party conferences also act as "important way-markers for our politics". 

Kuenssberg argued that the political gatherings serve as "health checks on the parties that seek to govern us", and often "show us moments when flaws are horribly exposed or progress revealed". What happens can "shape the conversation that ultimately decides who runs the country", by giving "millions an insight into the parties who seek to govern us".

'Risks worth the rewards'?

Party conferences were once places where ordinary party members "could get closer to their political heroes and have more influence over their policies than they ever could in Westminster", said The Economist. But "no longer".

 Today, "relatively few" party members attend, and policymaking has taken a back seat to media spectacle. The focus has shifted "from the experience of party members to the impression left on voters scanning the news headlines". Indeed, the paper added, "the big parties now treat the party conference primarily as an opportunity to grab the media’s attention for a few days and sell themselves to the country".

In an era when both the Labour Party and the Conservatives are "overseen by highly centralised and controlling operations", said the Financial Times's Whitehall editor Lucy Fisher, annual party conferences have become a "curious anomaly".  

These gatherings can pose a genuine management challenge for party leaders, as rival factions seize the opportunity to ambush party leadership with "malicious briefings" and make "eye-catching, controversial" public remarks. And party activists complain about the increasing costs involved in attending and about being overlooked in favour of companies and the media.

Ultimately, wrote Fisher, "party conferences take place partly because they always have done". They may make "some cash" for our political parties, "but they also leave many members feeling resentful and soak up endless time and effort for little political gain". 

Which begs the question for party leaders of "whether the risks are worth the rewards".

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