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Wednesday, 18 September, 2002, 12:10 GMT 13:10 UK
Just a seaside jaunt?
The value of party conference has been questioned

The hoteliers of Blackpool can have little doubt of the value of the political party conference season.

Labour's sojourn by the seaside is expected to bring the resort a 5.5m bounty in extra revenue - a boost all-too-welcome for a tourist industry hit by the foot-and-mouth epidemic.

Brighton and Bournemouth will enjoy a similar bonus as they host the Liberal Democrat and Conservative gatherings, but aside from such hard cash benefits, the value of party conferences is, some would say, more questionable.

Blackpool tower
Blackpool expects to get 5.5m from Labour conference
Pessimism about the potential of party conferences to give grass roots activists a real say is nothing new.

The long-running debate has been given added bite over the last decade as political parties became more preoccupied than ever with the demands of media management.

Worries in recent years about such issues have not been confined to the activities of Labour spin doctors.

John Strafford, chairman of the Campaign for Conservative Democracy, dubs the Tory conference a "total waste of time".

"There are not any motions for debate," said Mr Strafford. "Without discussion and debate there is no participation by the ordinary members of the party."

Because there is no controversy, the media are totally and utterly bored and stop going

John Strafford
Tory activist
In the wake of William Hague's party reforms, Conservative conferences now centre around general debates rather than holding votes on specific policies.

Mr Strafford says that was designed to turn the gathering into a media event and has backfired.

"Because there is no controversy, the media are totally and utterly bored and stop going."

Audience reaction

But former cabinet minister Peter Lilley says conferences have always been a media event during his political career.

Votes were never more than important merely as a potential source of embarrassment.

Mr Lilley's songs during conference speeches have become part of Tory conference folklore.

He argues the Hague reforms mean all party members, not just those at conference, have the chance to vote on draft manifestoes and other key issues.

Peter Lilley
Lilley says how activists respond is the key concern
And he underlines the power of conferences to make their views heard.

"I remember Nigel Lawson saying it's the only speech you make where the reception of the audience you are actually addressing is the main thing you are concerned about," Mr Lilley told BBC News Online.

"Normally, as a minister, the news coverage and what the newspapers will say is the real thing.

"In party conferences, if it goes down like a lead balloon then that becomes the story."

Mr Lilley remembers preparing for his first conference speech - as a young activist he knew he was going to be called to back the government's line on Rhodesia.

Speech training

Knowing he was facing his largest ever audience, he practised on a weekend Tory stand on Hyde Park Corner.

After facing a left-wing demonstration about Conservative Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home's decision to recognise the Chilean junta, Mr Lilley admits his conference appearance was "pretty easy" in comparison.

John Prescott
Prescott and others have sealed their reputation at conferences
It is by rallying the conference faithful that some politicians had forged their reputations - John Prescott, Michael Heseltine and the teenage William Hague, for example.

Unlike their Conservative counterparts, Labour has a stronger tradition of conference making key policy decisions.

Mark Seddon, a member of Labour's ruling NEC and editor of left-wing journal Tribune, says those days have largely gone, principally since the decline of party memberships.

He acknowledges that media presentation has long featured strongly in political parties, including Labour, with conferences used as "show cases".

Power of popular mood

But he argues the party conference can have a real effect where delegates display "a really overwhelming opinion about something".

"Sometimes, the popular mood is so powerful that you cannot prevent ideas and views percolating through," says Mr Seddon.

The Lib Dems too have become more media focussed in recent years, although their party conference provides newspaper sketch writers with the chance to caricature its activists' "beard and sandals" image of its activists.

Charles Kennedy speaking at a Lib Dem conference
The Lib Dems say their conference is the most open
Donnachadh McCarthy, deputy chairman of the party's federal executive, has been one of the conference's most vocal activists in the past decade, often proving a thorn in the side of the leadership.

Despite those battles, he believes his party is the only one which still gives conference an important role in shaping policy.

"There are processes there which you can actually access, even though it can take seven or eight times to get something onto the conference floor to be debated," says Mr McCarthy.

In all of the parties, however, the conferences offer political groupies a rare chance to hear the arguments first hand in an era when television seems to have killed off the political public meeting.

With issues as weighty as war on Iraq, the future of public services and the euro topping the agenda, there is still much to debate on the platform of political persuasion.

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