No car-crash interviews, bad sandwiches or warm wine: what political insiders really think about the cancellation of party conference
Both Labour and the Lib Dems have confirmed their conferences are cancelled
September is a big month in the Westminster calendar. Each autumn sees politicos in their droves pack their weekend bags, don their lanyards and stock up on Lemsip in a bid to stave off the dreaded conference cold.
Seen by the main parties as a vital opportunity to rally the grassroots, network and recentre after the usually long summer recess, the coronavirus pandemic has put paid to those plans in 2020.
Despite relying heavily on it for both policy-making and cash, Labour was the first to announce conference was axed back in May.
The party is expected to move the flagship event online – but full details are yet to be announced.
“From an engagement point of view, it’s going to be really, really difficult to recreate it in any real form online,” one former senior staffer told PoliticsHome.
“People will be so fatigued by that point of doing things on Zoom and videocall and businesses will be considering what they would get out of taking part that they wouldn’t normally.
“Obviously in normal times it’s physically being there and networking. But the thing that makes money for the party is the room rental, the fringes and the horrible sandwiches – there is no way of recreating that online.”
According to one source, autumn conference brings in around £1.5m for Labour each year, through a combination of exhibitions and business engagement, which goes directly towards paying off organisational debts.
It is also the party’s main forum for rubberstamping its political direction – with members and affiliates voting on policy recommendations put forward by Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) and the ruling National Executive Committee.
“It’s ultimately going to be a disaster financially and will leave a huge black hole,” an insider said.
“In terms of policy-making, members are going to do all of their voting virtually, which obviously can be done.
“The other major factor around membership is the fact lots of members won’t be able to get together. The party membership obviously became massive and really important during the Corbyn-era, and that kind of corralling of the Corbyn faithful is not going to happen.
“I think ultimately it will mean they’ll lose their momentum – no pun intended – on trying to keep hold of some control over the party, because they won’t be there en masse.”
'A CAMERA IN AN EMPTY ROOM'
For the Lib Dems, conference was set to be centred around the announcement of the party’s new leader – the conclusion of a contest which began back in December, when incumbent Jo Swinson lost her seat to the SNP.
“I think the weirdest and most difficult thing will be for the new leader and their team,” said one former staffer in ex-leader Tim Farron’s office.
“I assume they will do some sort of set piece speech at the end, and when we used to work for Tim we would all go to the auditorium the night before and do a run through of what was going to happen, get pizza and it would be a big rush of excitement the next day when it was all over.
"It was a really exciting buzz to end a week of really hard work.
“Whoever the new leader is, whether it’s Ed or Wera or Layla, they will want to do a big tubthumper of a speech – but they’ll basically be delivering it to a camera in an empty room, so it’s not going to be easy.”
Smaller parties may find it easier to absorb the potential financial hit, the staffer said, with breaking even considered a decent result even in ‘normal’ times.
“I assume there will some sort of ticket fee for online attendance, so they can probably claw a lot of it back that way,” they added.
“In Coalition days it would have been much more of a big deal, with lobbyists descending, but not now.
“The social side will be completely gone though, obviously. No more drinking in the hotel bar until 2am and then getting up for work at 5am. Which is both a good and bad thing.”
The Lib Dems' website confirms registrations for its ‘digital conference’ will open in July.
“There are some important details to sort about what will be technically possible," it says. "But we’re aiming big, including speeches, policy, training and fringe meetings. We want more members than ever before to take part in our annual showcase,
“It will run around the same time as we’d previously booked for our conference, though exact timings as yet to be fixed as we will look at the best times of day to schedule key events so the rhythm of the conference may be different from what we’re all used to.”
The Conservatives are yet to confirm whether their Birmingham conference – currently due to get underway on October 4 – will go ahead.
Giles Kenningham, former head of press at Number 10, said the government would be in need of a “morale boosting” event after a grueling few months navigating its way through the biggest health crisis in a generation.
“Boris is obviously incredibly popular among the grassroots and conference is an energising kind of thing that unites the party and brings people together, while making sure the leader is in touch with the grassroots,” he told PoliticsHome.
“Last year when Boris was leader and didn’t have a majority, things were difficult, but conference went pretty smoothly. The members wanted him as leader, he was there and they were happy about that.
“It looks like they won’t get that opportunity this year.”
Kenningham, who was also former PM David Cameron’s spokesman, said the cancellation would be “a bigger issue” for Labour as it attempts to rebuild after last year’s election defeat.
“Boris has the advantage of incumbency of office, so for an insurgent opposition these moments at conference give you the chance to appear in people’s living rooms, to get on the 6pm and 10pm news," he says.
“But it’s not just that, it’s a time to showcase your policies and particularly so when you’re in your first 100 days as leader, so in that sense I think it will hurt Labour more, and the Lib Dems even more so – they are going to lose that advantage.”
Insiders believe Tory HQ is holding off as long as possible on making a call, because the loss of the event could damage the Governemnt's ‘levelling up’ agenda.
“The fact it was meant to be in Birmingham this year would have been really important to them in terms of pushing that message,” one said.
“They will have to do some kind of virtual thing. We’ve seen with the press conferences that they are trying to engage and involve the public more, so maybe they will look to bring in more of that interactive element with members.
“But it’s just not the same as having the audience in the room and the audience at home through broadcast coverage. How can you hope to electrify the room? You lose the whole sense of drama and tension around conference, and with that comes the interest.”
Party staffers in charge of managing the media might get a break, at least.
“There won’t be any car crash doorstep moments with Cabinet ministers or whatever,” said one senior aide.
“I remember having some real Thick Of It-style conversations. Even when you tell a politician not to pay attention to the cameras and just walk straight past, there’s always one.”