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Mark Oaten

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Recess Over, Back to School for UK Politicians

Posted: 16/09/2013 18:06

From this week onwards, a weird annual British tradition begins which involves the UK political establishment dragging itself to grey conference buildings across the country to face near-empty halls, drab bed and breakfasts and wall-to-wall gatherings of party activists - it's a politician's worst nightmare and it all takes place under the glare of the public eye with lobby correspondents hiding in every corner.

Hardly any other democratic system opens itself to such ridicule, and in today's world of modern communication it's a miracle that party conferences still survive. What's most remarkable is that clearly both the media and politicians still think people are interested. The images of a suited politician standing at a lectern fill news bulletins nightly with commentators analysing every move - it's just about the dullest advert for political engagement and breaks every rule of modern political campaigning.

So why continue? On the plus side, some parties do actually democratically agree policy that is at least popular with party activists, although this often presents a headache to party leadership as I experienced myself when I was Lib Dem party chair. I can recall spending hours of time and goodwill to avoid a "leadership defeat at hands of activists" headline.

Admittedly the week is certainly a chance to make party members feel valued and thanked for 12 months of door-knocking and delivery. However it's rare that events happen at conferences to change the political map. For example, Neil Kinnock taking on the left wing of the Labour Party and Eric Heffer storming out in '85 was a point of high drama, and Kinnock subsequently falling in the water in later years was also high comedy; both episodes stood out as markers in Kinnock's career. But these episodes are few and far between at modern conferences.

But ask a politician what they dread most, and I can guarantee the more normal ones will put the party conference at the top of any list. If they enjoy it then mark them down as bonkers. September and October are seen as months of hell for politicians. My heart used to sink when it was Blackpool. That meant rain, rude taxi drivers, nowhere decent to eat or stay and endless trudging from venue to venue past arcades surrounded by girls in skirts no bigger than a belt. It was bloody miserable.

The idea of Conference is to pack in as many fringe meetings and media interviews as you can in a five-day period. A fringe is a lunchtime or evening meeting with three or four speakers in front of a room of party activists who have only turned up to get free sandwiches and escape the rain. The delegates will do one fringe per lunchtime but we poor MPs were expected to hit at least three. In my last year as home affairs spokesman I was in such demand that I did six fringes a day, about the same number of live media interviews, a conference speech and a round of shaking hands at receptions.

It's a shattering experience. Everywhere you go party members come up and offer a word of advice or criticism or request a visit to their constituency, journalists want the latest gossip, researchers need to talk you through a speech, a lobby group wants a word, a photo or your signature on a manifesto or dinner with the press and on and on it goes. It's the most intense experience and although your ego is flattered, every second is exhausting. My voice actually went one year and by the last night I was virtually miming my speech. But here's the silly thing; with such a schedule you'd think we'd be in bed by ten - but that's where a lot of us used to go wrong and probably still do. Exhausted, I would head to my room, shower, put on some jeans and hit the conference bar. The Lib Dems may be the third party of politics, but if elections were decided on bar takings it'd be heading for a landslide.

Each year from Blackpool, Bournemouth and Brighton (or at this year's venues: Manchester, Glasgow and Brighton) the main conference hotel would underestimate the amount of late night drinking the party members would get through. As MPs and party members gather through bouts of rain, boredom, fatigue and drinking all for a week long photo op where nothing ever really important gets decided - is it really worth it?

 

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