The death of the party conference
Why is it that a democratic institution that comes naturally to most of Europe has died out here?
I posted a Facebook status recently which outraged a redoubtable Eurosceptic of my acquaintance. It read:
“That awkward moment when you realise that the EPP - European People's Party annual conference, with ministers sitting at the front, successive speeches and floor votes, looks a lot like those democratic party conferences the Conservatives can no longer manage...”
His fury was based on two points: first, that I’d even attended since the Conservatives joined the new AECR europarty; and second that I dared to suggest the EPP was doing something – anything – more democratically than our British party. Allow me to explain myself on both counts.
I was there because, since I took over as the editor of European Democrat Students’ magazine BullsEye in July, I’ve gained the opportunity to attend European events with them as part of my job. This includes meetings across Europe and, as EDS is an EPP affiliate, the annual EPP congress, which this year was held in Bucharest. So that’s how it happened, your honour.
As for the democratic thing, well... let’s look at it like this. My first Conservative conference was in 2009, whilst an undergraduate at the University of Manchester. The life had long been sucked out of conferences by this point. The main hall had become, with a few exceptions, a way of passing idle hours between the small handfuls of interesting fringe events dotted like icebergs in the mediocre sea of lobbyist offerings.
Members couldn’t address the floor, while ministers took the stage for their act and then vanished. It was a long way from the energetic party conferences I’d glimpsed in old footage: the long table for where the cabinet sat and listened to speeches together; the uncensored floor speeches from members; the packed hall and lively crowd; and the voting. Now that was a proper party conference, and I never got to attend one.
Which might be why this revelation hit me quite so suddenly as I sat in one of the many, many halls of the Palace of the Parliament where the main plenary sessions were being held.
The seating was divided between ‘delegates’ and ‘guests’, suggesting some meaningful distinction between the two (I had bagged the seat of a Norwegian delegate to get a better view). The equivalent of the cabinet – the leaders of the various EPP member parties, including many heads of state like Angela Merkel, Donald Tusk and Fredrik Reinfeldt – sat at the front of the hall before and after their speeches. Then there came an announcement inviting delegates to register to address the hall, and giving the times for various votes.
Suddenly, it clicked – this was a proper conference! Such was the rush of heady excitement that I went, as per the modern instinct, straight to Facebook to express my wonder.
Obviously, with the benefit of distance I can backpedal a little. The enthusiastic, lively crowds of old British conferences were largely absent, which is probably the result of mostly uninspiring speeches being simultaneously translated in deadpan fashion into ten different languages. There was also only the most vestigial of fringes, consisting of five affiliate organisation stands and a small clutch of fairly technocratic debates (although sadly, even here our own conference can barely limp ahead).
All of this also owes much to the fact that the EPP has no grassroots or corporate identity, as it does not contest European elections under its own name. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that the EPP, as well as many of its member party’s like the Swedish Moderaterna that have so inspired Cameron, can all manage proper, democratic conferences that have died out over here.
I wasn’t expecting to bring home democratic lessons from a European institution, to say the least. But anybody worried about the future of membership-based party politics in the UK should try to calm their eurosceptic instincts for a minute to try to work out why a democratic institution that comes naturally to most of Europe has died out over here: the proper party conference.
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