As Labour conference fades away and the Tories’ own outing cranks into gear, I begin to long for silly season. After a month-long balm of survey stories and rubbish stunts, followed by a month of stultifying wonkish mumbo jumbo, I have found myself not hailing the return of ‘real news,’ but instead feeling mystified as to why our news agenda remains dominated by the same Westminster routines.
Conference should be quite a modern affair. The idea of political parties leaving their neo-gothic bubble-wrap and venturing forth amongst the red/blue/yellow blooded members of their organisations is, in theory, exhilarating. Ideas could pass back and forth, up and down. Ed could talk to some people who haven’t read the complete works of Hegel, Cameron could talk to some people who sometimes do some reading. Nick Clegg could talk to some people.
But that isn’t the way it goes. Instead, conference has become an occasion for individual rebrands. In each location, a series of unpopular figures are trotted out to spew implausibly populist soundbites into the crowd’s gaping maw, with varying degrees of accuracy or success.
Last week, we had Miliband’s triumph/blunder (depending on which op-eds you read) – a barnstorming speech on energy prices and living standards. Speaking without notes for an hour, red ed assured a public which has thought of him as distant and lacking in ideas that he thought paying lots of money for things is generally not great, that energy company CEOs are less important than ordinary people and that the current government isn’t as good as we thought they’d be last election. Not that he was playing to the gallery or anything.
This week, we’ve had right-wing equivalents from Osborne (“on yer bikes”) and May (“no more rights”). Each has hit their targets, with favourable coverage from Britain’s rabid right wing press, who tend to dislike more cuddly conservatism. Doubtless, each outing has scraped up a few votes and, in the case of the Tories, stopped one or two retired colonels defecting to UKIP. That said, Farage, who turned up cheerfully late with a glint in his eye and spent most of his time telling anyone who’d listen he wasn’t allowed in the secure zone, has done his bit to deflect coverage away from his rivals. His op-ed in today’s Times, too, threatened to derail Osborne’s winning streak with its suggestion of Tory-UKIP collaboration.
But, inter-party squabbling aside, any idealists hoping for real developments from any party this month should take note of Labour’s refusal to commit to renationalising the Royal Mail. As the BBC deadpanned: “Labour’s conference voted to commit the party to renationalisation, but sources made it clear at the time the policy would not be adopted by the leadership.”
And there’s the thing. While rhetoric around conference sounds very 21st century, all parties remain fixated on a push model of communications. They use conference like a megaphone: a chance to shout buzzphrases out to the press. Unfortunately, nobody will be listening. The influence of the media on the modern voter is doubtful, but in particular anti-political audiences won’t be swayed from their scepticism by more suited bores regaling them.
The next election will belong to whoever masters a proper, modern political rebrand. In the age of the crowdsourced interview, there must be a better way to look friendly to the voters.