Opinion: Party conferences don’t matter to voters

Glasgow conference 2014I’m lucky enough to live near Eastleigh in Hampshire, and I often need to go into Southampton for work. If I get a chance at lunchtime I go for a stroll on Southampton Common, a large open space close to the city centre. One of my favourite parts of the Common is Southampton Old Cemetery, an area of overgrown graves and tombstones that has largely been given over to wildlife, but where you can still wander around and read the inscriptions, still see the little details of other people’s lives and deaths.

Among the overgrown memorials that I wandered past last week was one to a former mayor of Southampton, who, his headstone recorded, “died early on Sunday morning”. Why was this important, so important that it was carved in stone along with his name and dates and political achievements? Because for most people, it’s the little things that really matter, not the big ideas. Yes, people care about the environment, but generally they’re more interested in the smell from their drains than in the melting polar ice cap. People care about the deficit, but they want to know if bread is cheaper in the local Co-op or the out of town Morrisons. People, by and large, have an opinion on immigration, but unless their opinions have crossed the border of bigotry, they’re more interested in whether Vaclav next door plays music at 3am than in whether he should be in the country at all.

This isn’t to say that big ideas don’t matter. Big ideas form the foundations of policies, and policies are translated into plans, plans which bring day to day changes to the lives of people who never show much interest in the big idea at all. Political parties, by their nature, are formed around big ideas. If you’re excited by free market economics, or stirred by collectivism, or even gently enthusiastic about liberalism, you might well join a political party, or vote in an election. But if you don’t care about the big ideas, then politics seems distant and uninteresting. All politicians know this, of course, and so they talk about the difference they will make to hard working families, to your local school, your local GP, your local police force. But for most voters, it seems they don’t really make a difference to the drains, or Vaclav’s music, or the special offer on sliced wholemeal.

Party conferences are opportunities to unite around big ideas, for people who think about the world in the same way to connect with each other and plan a future together. Spin doctors select the messages that go to the media, messages about changes for hard working local communities, but party conferences are essentially about big ideas, and for most voters they don’t matter. News coverage matters for the health of a party, but for voters what makes the difference is not the stirring keynote speech, it is the party activist who knocks on the door, the prospective candidate who listens to the issues about amenities and community policing and local shopping, who takes note and follows up, who delivers on promises made.

Party conferences matter to political parties, not to disengaged voters; winning votes depends not on big ideas, but on small changes.

* Steve Humphreys is a long term Lib Dem voter and part time writer.

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  • Yes, of course we can all agree with Steve Humphries! A couple of questions, though. Has voters’ general disengagement with what Steve calls “big ideas” intensified over the years (and, if so why?) Does Steve think we should try to engage people in the big ideas, as without an understanding of concepts running umderneath – as in any trade / profession etc – those who take part will only have half a story. As Steve says, it is sensible that we have as few voters as possible voting on the basis of bigotry, and as many as possible voting because they feel engaged with issues and big ideas.

  • “….they’re more interested in whether Vaclav next door plays music at 3am than in whether he should be in the country at all.”
    So what is your small change(s) solution to the above problem above , that you have rightly pointed out?

  • David Allen 6th Oct '14 - 5:55pm

    Party conferences don’t matter unless they show the voters something genuinely new. We didn’t need Ed Miliband’s latest muddle to show us that he’s not strong leadership material.

    The Tories showed that they have an unrivalled brass neck. They are going to annihilate the deficit, i.e. the gap between government spending and income, by means of a massive tax giveaway! But we always knew they were totally unprincipled opportunists who think people will believe anything if you say it with confidence and a public school accent. So again, we learned nothing new.

    Thus, several open goals gaped before the Lib Dems this weekend. Nominally, most were duly scored – on the Tories’ unbelievable figures, on fairness, on the needs of the NHS, for example. Then there was the gentle hint that whilst we might fancy a fling with Labour, in truth the Lib Dem leadership is married to the Tories and will stay faithful, however badly behaved the Bullingdon Boys become. I think we always knew that one, too.

    And then finally, there was the promise that in the next coalition, the Lib Dems would become a completely different animal. In place of Clegg the lamb, lying down and accepting all the right-wing policies thrown at him – tuition fees, NHS changes, bedroom tax, etc – we can apparently expect to see Clegg The Lion. Emboldened by having far fewer MPs, Clegg The Lion will stand up to the Tories and start to take control. Well, I’m afraid we all know how likely that one is, too.

    So, yes Steve Humphries, I agree with you. The party conferences don’t matter!

  • “Party conferences don’t matter to voters” – thats what everyone who has a bad conference tells anyone who will listen.

  • Igor Sagdejev 6th Oct '14 - 6:49pm

    @John Dunn

    Apparently, the easiet chnage is to exit the EU altogether (not “like Norway” or “like Switzerland”). We’ll screw ourselves up, but Vaclav will play night music back in Ostrava or Brno – and this is what matters!

  • Before Party Conferences were shunted into the ghetto of BBC Parliament they were broadcast on mainstream TV and for around twenty years or so all sorts of ordinary people watched party the conferences. I know of people who joined our party on the basis of happening to come across our conference on TV and being impressed by what they saw.

    Party conferences and indeed Parliament itself are now hidden away from ordinary viewers who would not dream of switching on BBC Parliament. They maybe see a five minute piece on the news, presented through the heavy gauze of “experts” and political correspondents. Unfortunately those experts and correspondents more often than not trivialise. Their condescending attitudes (almost any statement by a Dimbleby) are appalling. They are more entrenched in the exclusive club of the Westminster Bubble than most MPs, and they dismiss and despise anyone outside their small circle.

  • Little Jackie Paper 7th Oct '14 - 12:11am

    I have long thought that Party Conferences are a relic. Get rid of them and let the parties have proper AGMs. The good bits of what we have now could easily be brought into other events. Perhaps have the PM give some sort of State of the Union with opposition leaders giving a response.

  • Julian Tisi 7th Oct '14 - 11:16am

    Agree broadly with the thrust of the article – that party conferences don’t mean much to most people (unless a party leader has a bad one, when it does!) but therein lies the challenge to politicians of all parties. One of the differences between people involved in national politics (like those who go to Conference) and everyone else is that the former don’t so much “think big ideas” but that they’re the ones who’ve thought not just the big ideas but crucially how these translate into policy choices and how they in turn translate into real world pain or gain.

    This is I think a crucial difference between someone who gets involved in a political party and someone who gets involved in a one-issue campaign. The former will normally have thought very broadly about not just one issue but a whole range of issues, through the lens of their core values and world view. They will have joined the party that accords most with their core values and will apply those to policy choices.

    The challenge for politicians of all parties is to explain not only how their policy choices make a difference which people will care about but also how the overall set of policy choices reflects the core beliefs they’re based on. This is in practice very hard particularly when campaign departments get involved and sometimes a policy choice is reduced to such a trite simplicity that it’s hard to see what core philosophy is behind it.

  • Caracatus 7th Oct ’14 – 9:42am
    —-“It is reported today that some amendment to a policy paper was passed or rejected at conference yesterday by about 150 votes to 125 – I don’t have the exact figures but the laughable numbers tell their own story of party operating in the 1920’s not 2014.”

    This is a fair criticism. But what is the real purpose of the conference? Is it all just a way of extracting large amounts of cash from party members whilst providing an opportunity for oligarchs, lobbyists and multi-national corporations to buy out what is left of democracy in the party?

  • matt (Bristol) 7th Oct '14 - 4:45pm

    I don’t care whether conferences matter to voters. I don’t attend conference and never have. I don’t like the lobby-fest; the opinion-fest, the rolling-media frothing at the muth frenzy.

    BUT, due process matters. Democratic consultation matters. scrutiny matters. Accountability matters. Face-to-face engagement between activists and leaders matters.

    What mechanism do you propose for that, after you have abolished Conference?

  • Steve Humphreysa 8th Oct '14 - 8:06am


    I think you’ve put your finger exactly on the issue. Media presentation of important issues has been reduced to the constant appeal to the self-obsessed voter: “your local change” rather than our big idea.

    Perhaps the fact that party conferences have been relegated to BBC Parliament should be a sign of their relevance to voters. I agree with matt (Bristol), due process matters. But wouldn’t it be something if the Liberal Democrats were to break with political tradition and find another way of making decisions as a party than moving the whole leadership to some hotel for a long weekend?

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