Further thoughts on political party conferences

Over a year ago, I posted this entry about political party conferences. Having just experienced my first UK political party conference (rather than just a Scottish party conference), I have some additional thought which may or may not be of interest. 

First, the expense: You guessed it, even more prohibitive than the Scottish costs. At one point we thought it was going to cost £800 for me to attend – and I was only going in order to chair one 75 minute long fringe meeting. Because of an administrative error on the part of the organisers I got in for free in the end. (Take that!)

And why was I chairing the meeting anyway? UK conferences are attended by UK staff. Well, it was in Glasgow so I was on hand, and the panel of the event we had been asked to support was all male, so as a democracy organisation we felt my presence as a woman as chair would be, useful. Turns out we were practically the only people who thought this. The VAST majority of the event panels were all male, with only a handful including even a single woman. The entire New Statesmen three day event series had male speakers. 

Unsurprisingly therefore, the audiences are also predominantly male. I’m speaking at an event this week on women and voting so I’ll be raising this there and asking what can be done to involve women more in politics, especially if panels continue to be gender biased towards men.

Anyway, the most thought-provoking aspect of conference this time was not the paucity of gender balance. It was the profligacy. 

As mentioned, it costs a small fortune to attend party conference, more to have an exhibition stand, more to host a fringe, and more again to have refreshments at your fringe event. Then you add in accommodation, additional expenses, travel, and its a pretty large chuck of most organisations’ budgets. 

I appreciate political parties need to raise money, especially as membership is on such a steep decline. 

But. All your elected politicians are paid from the public purse. And if you are in government you receive an additional income. And if you aren’t you still get public funding through short money. 

I don’t object to this. I would MUCH prefer equally divided public funding for political parties than watch ‘donors’ receive peerages or preferential treatment. 

But… Why really must parties spend so much (and require others to spend so much) in holding regular conferences? Not all the membership attend. Policy positions don’t change because of party members input at conference. Online voting on motions would be much more democratic and transparent. 

And I think it was walking back up to the SECC after popping out for a sandwich that really brought this home to me. 

The food stands in the exhibition hall were closed when I arrived. Instead there were copious amounts of free wine (and juice), for the assembled masses to enjoy whilst being geed up by the party chairman. And I mean copious amounts. I’m not objecting, it was nice wine.

But then I started thinking about who had paid for it. A donor seeking advantage? The party looking to placate the membership? And whoever had footed the bill at the end of the day I couldn’t help but be struck at the contrast. The contrast between the suited and booted, 90% white, wine drinkers cheerfully greeting each other whilst surrounded by stands from Battersea Power Station, Sky News, the Falkland Islands, the Tobacco Retailers Alliance et al, and the Glasgow just beyond the armadillo. I don’t think Glasgow’s food banks lay on wine receptions.

Glasgow has the most workless households in the UK. It is the third worst city in the UK for child poverty – at a cost to the city of almost £400m annually. 

I take the point that all those carousing Lib Dems will bring money into the city, and the staff at the SECC will be working flat out when they might not have been. 

But (I’ve used but a lot in this post), but… Imagine if a political party cancelled conference. If instead they and their corporate sponsors used the money they would have spent glad-handing to fund anti-poverty programmes, to help invigorate cities, to tackle homelessness. 

Obviously it would be even better if Government just paid for all that and didn’t introduce regressive and harmful polices like the bedroom tax, but, just imagine. Or even imagine inviting disadvantaged children for a decent meal, instead of providing wine to the membership. 

Maybe even a handful of organisations could decide they weren’t paying to attend conference because the money would be better spent on the servies they provided, services necessary because of Government failings. Or maybe the corporate sponsors could donate their contribution to their worthwhile cause of choice. 

And maybe pigs might fly.