During one of Tony Benn’s great rants against the modernisation of the Labour Party, he forecast that one day delegates to the party conference would be told that they weren’t there to debate issues but merely to blow up balloons for the leader’s triumphal entry.
Benn’s forecast came to my mind as I watched the recent Republican and Democratic conventions. With our version of the conventions, the party conferences, starting this weekend I thought it might be worth comparing the two.
Way back in American convention history, they were the events at which candidates were chosen and policy formed, not any more.
The primary contests which start across America in the previous winter mean that the candidates are known well in advance. The last time a Republican Convention met with any uncertainty about the candidate was in 1976 when Ronald Reagan attempted to wrest the nomination from Gerald Ford. In the Democrats’ case it was Ted Kennedy’s effort to unseat Jimmy Carter in 1980.
This year yet again there was no opportunity for delegates in Tampa, Florida or Charlotte, North Carolina to influence the policy platform. Similarly while there will be debates on policy motions at the Labour conference in Manchester and the Tory gathering in Birmingham, it will only be Liberal Democrat delegates who will actually make policy line by line when they meet in Brighton.
The wives of political leaders are playing a growing role on both sides of the Atlantic. Here we’ve seen Sarah Brown introduce her husband at a Labour conference. Sam Cam is a fixture with the Tories, but they are bit parts compared to the central roles that Anne Romney and Michele Obama played at their conventions this month. Both put on sparkling performances in contrast to the more staid performances of their husbands, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama.
Celebrities at party conferences were certainly a feature of the Blair era and many of Hollywood’s finest supported the Democrats this year in Charlotte. The Republicans however scored an own goal with a bizarre rambling performance by the ageing Clint Eastwood. It didn’t make their day.
So what might be coming to our party conferences in the future? The CNN news channel played the party videos shown to the delegates whereas the BBC always cut away when similar screenings are made at our party conferences. The BBC says it isn’t in the business of broadcasting straight party propaganda. That strikes me as odd considering the rest of the conference is just that.
In the American videos we saw the families of the candidates heavily featured. Everyone with a distant relationship to Romney or Obama was interviewed.
Another striking feature was the emphasis on families with relatives serving in the military.
It’s a close race in the US election this year with the Republicans turning up the heat on the economy and Obamacare (the President’s attempt to introduce something like the NHS to America). There is no doubt that the “Yes we can” Obama optimism of four years ago has faded but incumbent Presidents are rarely turned out. Only Jimmy Carter (1980) and HW Bush (1992) have suffered that fate since 1945.
So in 2012 will we just get balloons and stage managed baloney at our conferences? The Liberal Democrats do still have a real policy making conference and all credit to them. Labour needs an honest debate on its economic policy as the party is taken more seriously again and those Tories who really are unhappy with Cameron need to come out of the woodwork. I doubt it will happen.