To political old lags, there are few more dispiriting prospects than party conferences.
Once the exciting caviar that thrilled the political appetite, now diminished into the blancmange of pointless pap and commercial tedium.
The glory days have gone. Neil Kinnock’s high drama of casting out the Militants, Thatcher mocking the dead parrot, David Steel urging Liberals to prepare for government.
In Labour, key binding decisions were crafted by consenting comrades in compositing cabals, the Liberals braved the perilous political fringes to challenge the timid and brain-comatose, while the Tories orgied in flag-waving Nuremberg Rally-induced hysteria – all no more, drowned in the syrup sea of consensus.
Parties now seek the featureless middle ground where they believe a harvest of votes will be reaped.
All are haunted by past crucifying embarrassment – for example, the greatly loved Michael Foot’s speech that included a quote from a newspaper. To read it, Foot had to raise the paper to within an inch of his eye. The ‘vibrant leader’ image crumbled into one of sad decrepitude.
New leader Iain Duncan Smith croaked a swansong of forced emotion in 2003, buoyed up by 17 rehearsed standing ovations. In deep denial, the Tory faithful smiled and cheered, masking their horror that they’d picked the wrong leader. Steel had a nightmare conference baptism as he dragged his flock out of the scandal of ‘Rinkagate’.
The 2013 conferences dare not be interesting; it’s safer to preen and posture, to dribble vanity and vacuity.
Combative politics has been emasculated, because there are no opponents to vanquish, no laws to be decided, no decisions to be made. It’s all just shadow boxing, one hand-clapping, and a charade of futility.
Annually, backbenchers of all parties have the bleak choice – suffer the penances of attendance or play truant and catch up with serious constituency work. Listening to a week of speeches from colleagues and party hopefuls, while feigning appreciation, is drudgery.
The saintly accept the chore as an inescapable, barely endurable duty. Some find relief in the dulling drug of alcohol as a barrier between their inner sensibilities and the exterior hell’s pageant.
For the incurable gluttons, freeloaders and winos, the fringe non-stop receptions can be joyous opportunities for self-expression for both the serious politician and the devout hedonist.
Dedicated do-gooders can use their round of events as an exercise in the redistribution of wealth. Never eat, but contribute generously to the raffle at the events run by the good causes of CPAG, Greenpeace, Marie Curie and Mind.
Creative idealists may over-indulge at events promoting Mega-Greed Plc. The week will pass painlessly, anaesthetised in an overheated, over-alcoholised and sleep-deprived torpor.
Mercifully, conferences are losing their political potency, but euthanasia is not imminent. Small improvements in parties’ poll ratings are unavoidable in the week of media attention, but after the final conference, ratings inevitably balance and return to the original pre-shindig levels.
‘Twas ever thus: inertia and the parliamentary calendar ensure a continuing zombie future. All participants fear change.
The growing infestation of lobbyists and commercial interests prize contact with legislators, and at Manchester last year, my membership of a select committee made me a target for constant stalking by an extreme religious sect with a grievance.
There is one glorious alternative. On the island of Gotland, a Swedish political Glastonbury attracts 17,000 politicos. It’s a Hay romp festival that brings in the leaders of all Sweden’s political parties.
Events are free and open to anyone. Politicians, public and journalists engage in rancour-free constructive debate.
For the victims of assault by platitudes, pressure by commerce, stalking by lobbyists, there is respite. Close your eyes and think of Gotland.
However my collegue Simon Hughes seems to think slightly differently.
"Ask any Liberal Democrat member, activist, parliamentarian or party worker this question, and you’re likely to get a very resounding response that party conference does indeed matter. Our twice-yearly conferences are the supreme policy-making and rule-making body of the party."
"The great thing about a party with a conference which decides the constitution and party rules and policies is that we can offer existing and new members the chance to influence the position and direction of the party on the most local but also the most nationally important issues."