John Kampfner: Bugger Brighton, Bournemouth & Blackpool

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The Prime Minister is returning from his sojourns in the villas of the rich and famous. Lesser mortals are on their way back too. A new political season beckons - presumably the last before the general election - and by force of habit attention is turning to the party conferences.

The Prime Minister is returning from his sojourns in the villas of the rich and famous. Lesser mortals are on their way back too. A new political season beckons - presumably the last before the general election - and by force of habit attention is turning to the party conferences.

Over coming days and weeks watch political journalists declare in their shrill but earnest tones that the Labour conference will be Tony Blair's "toughest test yet". Encouraged discreetly by Downing Street, they will declare that the leadership will face trouble on a number of issues. This year, as last year, these will include public service reform and Iraq. Mr Blair will heroically face down these threats, correspondents will be briefed, and will emerge the stronger after a "barnstorming" (how these clichés trot off the tongue) "keynote" (there goes another one) speech to the faithful.

I am as guilty as the rest. I have done it more times than I care to remember. But as I count the 10 Labour conferences I have covered - a mere novice by the standard of many in the Lobby - I realise how rarely these predictions have come to fruition.

For years now, the gatherings by the sea have been a sham. They are the last place where real politics is conducted and the last place the Prime Minister will struggle. Labour packs the hall with first timers from constituency parties, most of whom are happy simply to be there and will do as they are told. Carefully seated clappers drown out any dissent. The National Executive Committee has become a toothless organisation, whose meetings Blair attends briefly at the start and then disappears. Unions tend to be squared on the eve of conference. Where defeats do occur, such as in recent years over pensions, they prolong the chimera of democracy. In any case, defeats are ignored by the time ministers return to Westminster.

The foreign affairs debate in 2003 was a good example. Only a handful of delegates critical of policy on Iraq were called. Most of the allotted time was given to an address by Hamed Karzai, the Afghan leader. This year, according to reports, Mr Blair floated the idea of bringing over Iyad Allawi, the Iraqi Prime Minister, whose record includes encouraging the British and Americans in their misguided anxieties about Saddam Hussein's supposed weapons of mass destruction and is now fighting his enemies into submission. Perhaps Mr Blair realised this might be one challenge too far.

Conservative conferences were happy-clappy affairs of the blue-rinse set when they were in government, occasions for Michael Heseltine's silly walks, Peter Lilley's denunciations of foreign scroungers and Michael Howard's pledges to crack down on crime. In the dying years of John Major's administration they became more boisterous and divisive, particularly on Europe, but for an alienated general public they shed more heat than light. Now, as the Tories gradually modernise, real debate again is not encouraged. Even the Liberal Democrats are keen to control events more than before when votes on issues such as the monarchy or drugs would gain media attention, reinforcing a stereotype about sandal-wearing activists that both Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy have sought to shed.

So why do they persist? Financially, conferences are money-spinners, particularly for governing parties who can sell exhibition floor space and advertising space at grossly inflated rates. Socially, journalists and lobbyists have a ball, with the festivities kicking off on the Sunday night courtesy of my very own New Statesman and culminating in a knees-up on the Wednesday night thanks to the Mirror. In between one can indulge in a spot of networking at the dozens of receptions held by the likes of BSkyB, BAA, the European Commission, the whisky distillers, Labour Friends of Israel.

Some serious discussion is held at fringe meetings where cabinet ministers can be challenged. But, if these conferences are to mean anything, many of these debates should be held on the floor. They should, but they won't, because they would produce newspaper headlines of "splits" and "rows" and "warfare". We journalists have much to answer for. As for the main event of the week, the leader's address, seats are at a premium for the annual Blair worship as ambassadors and chief executives are given pride of place. The camera backdrop is carefully choreographed with a phalanx of loyal activists ready to applaud and smile on cue. These were particularly important last year when Mr Blair had to rebut an implicit challenge laid down by Gordon Brown in his "best when we're Labour" speech the previous day - a rare moment of genuine tension. The content of these speeches is important. They tend to set the tone, famously Tony Blair's battle against the "forces of conservatism" in 1999 and his promise to "reorder the world" in 2001 shortly after the events of 11 September. But they could just as easily be made elsewhere.

Talking of venues, why this year are we traipsing twice to Bournemouth and once to Brighton? The towns, lovely though they are, are hardly representative of the UK. New Labour has made no secret of its disdain of its biennial treks to Blackpool. But why the seaside, why not a couple of days in Birmingham or Manchester ... or Milton Keynes? That would sort out those committed to political debate from the rest. For the locals the conferences are a mixed blessing. The profits made by hoteliers, restaurateurs and taxi drivers are more than offset by the disruption caused by the fortress security which gives delegates a false sense of their own importance.

Most MPs privately will tell you they try to avoid conference when they can. Most ministers would agree but know they cannot. Labour and the Tories have already cut their conferences back by a day. The BBC has scaled back its live coverage to a minimum. Perhaps the parties should confine their get-togethers to a weekend - after all which ordinary delegate would in their right mind take a week's holiday to attend? Perhaps they could make them every other year, or every four years like the pre-election conventions in the United States that make no pretence at debate.

In an ideal world, party conferences should provide a forum, but they do not. More accountability to the grassroots is vital to revive interest, but, in its absence, better to scrap these gatherings than to continue with the charade.

John Kampfner is political editor of the 'New Statesman' and author of 'Blair's Wars'

Alan Watkins is away

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