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Last Updated: Friday, 10 October, 2003, 08:41 GMT 09:41 UK
Getting off the conference bandwagon

By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

The party conferences are on a life support - and it is time someone pulled the plug.

That is not just the view of cynical hacks, it is increasingly the view of political party members.

Tony Blair, Charles Kennedy and Iain Duncan Smith
Do they really love to be beside the seaside?
These rallies have long been nothing more than forums for the adoration of the party leaders.

But this year the last pretence that they serve any other function - such as giving delegates a say in policy - has been abandoned.

Even those people who turn up to applaud their great men no longer believe in their hearts they have any purpose other than as cheerleaders.

Internal revolts

The Liberal Democrats still show signs of life but it is certain that if they really do become the opposition, they will rapidly follow the same path.

There are plenty of good reasons why conferences have turned in to these pointless exercises
For Labour, those heady, self-immolating days when national executive meetings, card votes and backroom stitch-ups could determine the party's fortunes ended with Michael Foot's leadership.

Neil Kinnock and John Smith started the reform - with crucial help in Mr Smith's time from John Prescott - and Tony Blair has taken them to their logical conclusion.

At this year's conference the leadership was facing serious internal revolts over the war on Iraq, tuition fees and foundation hospitals.

But only the most terminally naive believed they would be allowed to vote on the issues or, if they were, that their opinions would carry any weight.

The prime minister and his cabinet made that abundantly clear on any number of occasions before and during their rally.

Parallel universe

What we did get in Bournemouth was a thinly disguised leadership pitch by Gordon Brown, and another "with-one-bound-he-was-free" speech by Tony Blair.

The expressions of anger and the defeats were there, but they were left there.

When business returns to normal as it will do in just a couple of days' time, nothing will have changed.

As for the Tories, some of them must have felt they had entered a parallel universe.

In the debates, the shadow ministers listened to the advice from the floor, thanked the speakers for their contributions and then told them what they were going to do.

There were undoubtedly some substantial policy announcements. But they could have been made anywhere at any time.

Dirty linen

And the representatives who elected Iain Duncan Smith less than two years ago had to watch as bystanders while various senior party members plotted his Brutus moment.

His speech was indeed a defining moment, but he didn't have to travel to Blackpool to make it. Arguably the feverish atmosphere encouraged by conference made matters worse.

Of course there are plenty of good reasons why conferences have turned in to these pointless exercises.

So, the only possible reason the leaders keep these events going is because they allow the membership to bond, to reunite some sort of communal spirit.

And, of course, no one has the nerve to be the first to finally put them out of their misery.




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