Utter the phrase “conference season” to a Westminster veteran and don’t be surprised if their initial reaction is a shudder. For regular attendees of the annual party gatherings, which kick off next weekend, they raise the prospect of lengthy policy sermons and curled cheese sandwiches by day, followed by sweaty bars and third-hand gossip by night.
This year, however, any attendees consuming questionable catering and astringent wine will only have themselves to blame, while the boring conversation will be inflicted not by policy wonks, but their immediate family. When the 2020 season starts, Westminster’s strange autumn tradition will decamp not to a seaside resort or city conference centre, but online. The queues will relocate from the bars to the virtual tech help-desks.
For some regulars, the list of conference traditions that will not be missed roll easily off the tongue.
“Terrible food that’s incredibly expensive, meaning you have to search the fringe agenda for places putting on free grub,” suggests the former Downing Street adviser and Lib Dem strategist Sean Kemp. “Being confronted with mobile phone recordings of MPs saying bizarre things to rooms made up almost entirely of journalists waiting for them to say something daft; the odd smell of the conference hotel bar by day three; accompanying an MP on an early morning media round when you’ve only had an hour’s sleep – and having to explain to journalists why charging them huge sums of money for the rent of a wooden table and a plug is totally justifiable.”
For the parties, the online switch has come as a mixed blessing. The prospects of being stuck talking to dubious lobbyists or dealing with an incendiary fringe event have reduced, but parties are facing a financial hit from the cancellation of a physical meeting – as are the thinktanks and political magazines who target the events as a money spinner. Labour insiders have not disguised the fact that the loss of conference income, which is said to run well into six figures, will be a significant hit.
Labour, first up with its virtual offering this year, has turned its conference into an event much more focused on party training. Its gathering, rebranded as Connected, is focusing on training members, explaining how to run as a councillor and the art of deploying social media in campaigning. It will be interspersed with the usual shadow cabinet speeches and, handily for the new leader, potentially tricky votes on policy and party rule issues have been jettisoned.
The party is retaining one conference tradition. The leader’s speech, the first delivered by Keir Starmer, is planned as a major moment that will allow him to make his first major address to the country, broadcast live on television as usual. Starmer is planning to give the speech in a key marginal seat. Locations in the so-called “red wall”, where the Tories made historic gains in the 2019 election, are being looked at.
Despite the scaled-down conference, policy work is already under way behind the scenes on how Labour’s next manifesto will be constructed. Starmer has ordered a “triple tick” system, ensuring that all policies are tested against their impact on spending, safeguarding the union and reducing carbon emissions. An examination of spending commitments is already being carried out by MP Bridget Phillipson. Matthew Pennycook, the shadow minister for climate change, is now marking all policies with “a green pen”.
Meanwhile, the Lib Dems are trying to retain as much of the usual conference as possible, with all the normal votes and motions that ensure an embarrassing if predictable defeat for the leadership. Key debates are planned on a universal basic income and Europe, and members can apply to speak using an “electronic speaker’s card”.
The Tories will attempt to ensure the party does not miss out on the financial boost provided by their conference, offering virtual stalls in an online exhibition hall for prices ranging from £6,000 to more than £25,000 plus VAT. Exhibitors are promised benefits including “ministerial virtual visits from senior members of cabinet” and a “brandable, dedicated interactive stand”.
Other political players are also trying to make the most of the virtual format. The Spectator magazine, whose party is usually the hottest ticket in town at the Tory conference, is holding its own virtual conference later this month, complete with cabinet minister interviews and sponsored sessions.
KEY CONFERENCE MOMENTS
Kinnock takes on Militant
Neil Kinnock gave perhaps the most famous leader’s speech in 1985, as he denounced “the grotesque chaos of a Labour council” in Liverpool being swayed by the hard left Militant group.
In 2005, a New Labour government already under pressure over its attitude to civil liberties did itself no favours when Walter Wolfgang, an elderly Labour party member, was ejected for shouting “rubbish” during a speech by Jack Straw.
The no notes speech
David Cameron went from rank outsider to dead cert after his 2005 conference speech, setting out why he should be Tory leader. His roaming, teleprompter-free speech caught the imagination of Tory members and set something of a trend.
The 3.15am briefing
On the last night of the 2008 Labour conference, Downing Street spinner Damian McBride gathered journalists in the bar of the Midland hotel in Manchester to confirm that cabinet minister Ruth Kelly was to quit.
May loses her voice
The 2017 conference witnessed the stuff of nightmares for any politician, let alone a leader. Theresa May struggled through what was billed as a make-or-break conference speech after losing her voice and having a coughing fit.