Party conferences: only a ‘party’ for those on the unspoken guest-list

By Sam Tomlin

Politics isn’t working.  So insinuated Lord Ashdown on Monday at the Liberal Democrat party conference. Quite apart from the turmoil of economic woes and social policy, we are, he said, going through a “crisis of democracy” where politics just isn’t connecting to the electorate.

Of course, it is not new thinking to suggest that Joe or Jo Bloggs’ trust in the systems of power has decreased over the past years. The expenses scandal, banking crisis and media moral implosion have ensured public trust in institutions that help form society are perhaps at an all time low.

Re-engaging the electorate is of course a much talked about subject, and Lord Ashdown’s approach, in the fringe event on public services mentioned above, was some form of decentralisation enabling communities to take greater control. Without going into too much detail (and acknowledging a very simplified version of what was said), this of course leads us into wider debates around centralised funding, localism, the Big Society and millionaire’s mansions. Of course these are vital debates, but ultimately they are nothing new.

What did strike me, as a party conference virgin, was that nowhere in the discourse either in this event or in any others I attended, were the means by which politics achieves its goals really challenged, as opposed to the goals themselves or the ‘output’ as one might call it.

What do I mean? I mean that the main way politics is unintentionally exclusive. Walking around the stalls at the conference, I struck up a number of conversations about constitutional reform, foreign policy and welfare, all in a rather strange and disconnected language I am beginning to develop myself as an emerging ‘politico’. Ultimately such conversations and even venues for big conferences (the Grand Hotel in Brighton) act as barriers for most ordinary people from participating.

As I have argued before, the ‘out-of-touch-ness’ of politicians and those with power could be challenged with where these people choose to live – there is a great difference between making a trip with the cameras to an estate to ‘hug a hoodie’ and living in an area and engaging with people in your constituency as neighbours. They, their and theirs become we, our and ours. This is a vital distinction and chimes with thoughts of Lord Adonis who recently suggested MPs who send their children to private schools and want a voice in education policy are ‘politically bankrupt’.

The Grand hotel in Brighton: Exclusive?

Beyond lifestyle choices of politicians, more can also be done to make politics itself more accessible and inclusive. My challenge to Nick, Dave or Ed (if any of them are indeed there next year), then would be to start by rethinking how even party conferences are run. Imagine if one of the parties chose to run their conference from a town hall and adjacent buildings in Tottenham or inner city Glasgow rather than a group of posh hotels, inviting people on benefits to come and partake in debates about benefit provision, or young people from failing schools about the failing schools. Would this be a workable model for all sessions? Clearly not. Would it mean a dumbing down of intellectual debate, I would hope not, and even if it did, the value in personal experience as ‘evidence’ would certainly help to enrich the discussions beyond the often hopelessly removed debates that currently take place.

I am aware of the radical nature of this proposal and I am also aware most people reading this will probably be thinking about the impractical nature, security issues and many more reasons why it’s a ridiculous idea. To such people I would say that if things stay the way they are, we will continue to advocate a model of expecting people to come to politics rather than politics reaching out to the people. Of course, local politics is much better at inclusivism, but the problem is that much of local politics is simply the outworking of what national politics says local politics must look like, as we have clearly seen in the cuts over the past two years.

Yes, a party which attempted this may be ridiculed, but they may also be remembered as pioneers and praised for actually trying to have a go at setting out a ‘real’ alternative vision for British politics (rather than all the ‘fake’ alternative visions we often see during an electoral cycle which simply end up being a re-branding of former policies).

Tottenham: Would more people engage with democracy if it was on their doorstep?

In order to tackle the ‘crisis of democracy’ we need to take the national political system away from its pompous platform, and this will require deeply creative thinking to challenge the engrained status quo. The ‘end’ of an engaged electorate, especially those from poorer communities, cannot simply be thought of in isolation primarily because the ‘end’ must be reflected in the ‘means’ by which we want to achieve the end in the first place. The electorate will never be motivated to participate in democracy until it is ‘normalised’ as Alexis De Tocqueville argued in the 19th century. The alternative, I fear, will be a future full of exactly the same debate, many circles later.

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4 comments
  1. Tim Hart said:

    A very good article. The closed security zones and iron clad security apparatus surrounding party political conferences – similar to that which permanently surrounds our parliament – is a potent symbol of our bankrupt democracy.

  2. Joshua Mellors said:

    Good observations here Sam, thank you for sharing these reflections. Perhaps the only think I would take issue with was your comment that politics is unintentionally exclusive. I believe this to be the exact opposite of truth. If you want to govern, why dilute your own power by being ‘inclusive’? Political elites of course think more along these lines; they want power to be confined to themselves. Your proposals for inclusion are certainly very valid, but it is for deliberate reasons that they are not taken seriously.

    As Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously said: ‘In politics, nothing happens by accident. If it happens, you can bet it was planned that way.’

    I think this should be the first lesson of politics. Certainly shifted my way of thinking. ‘The system’ is not the result of any kind of altruistic reasoning, but rather of the power of those who have the resources available to design and shape it as they wish and for their own interests. For example, one gets very frustrated when contemplating the sheer irrationality and undemocraticness of the FPTP voting system; it is far more illuminating to accept the obvious truth that it remains simply because it serves our political elite well. They don’t want ‘more democracy’, as we saw from last year’s AV fiasco, and why would they?

  3. Sam T said:

    Thanks Tim & Joshua for comments.

    Joshua – I would actually tend to agree.. partly. I think many politicians and those in power actually don’t know they are actually embezzling that power & think what they are often doing is for the best of the whole. I would perhaps describe it as ‘unconscious intentional embezzlement’ of power, if that works.

    I think it’s also not necessarily the fault of an individual, but a collective group of political elites who all buy into the system. What I find surprising is the speed with which the process happens – I think a lot of people go into politics with the right intentions and then get caught up in it. As I have said before, if one MP chose to live in a rough council estate & made a big deal about it I think it would rock the establishment. It’s certainly ridiculous that it isn’t mandatory or at least strongly encouraged for MPs to live in their constituency.

    • Joshua Mellors said:

      That’s probably fair. And yes, that would definitely make a massive difference; I guess when it does become mandatory we’ll know we’ve finally become a civilised society. That’s probably a good way off though.

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