"After the Silly Season
comes the conference season. Opposition did rather well this year. Abandoned their usual tactic of squabbling in public and shooting themselves in the foot and had a go at us, particularly the Prime Minister. Very unsporting."
—Francis Urquhart, House of Cards
Every year in September, the big political parties in Britain go to the seaside for a conference (others have them as well). Precisely where varies from year to year, but Brighton, Bournemouth and Blackpool are common.
Unlike the stage-managed US National Conventions, these are far more interesting. You get the debates on the conference floor and the big speeches by celebrities (Bono did Labour in 2005). There are also the fringe meetings, where people discuss other topics. Plus there's the usual round of publicity stunts associated with British politics, which may involve a collection of people wearing Gordon Brown masks or naked pensioners.
The big event is the Leader's Speech, which is always carried on the news networks and BBC 2. It will be analysed heavily by the press, with their usual bias. A Standing Ovation will always occur.
- 1980 Conservative Conference:
"To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the U-turn, I have only one thing to say: You turn if you want to. The lady
's not for turning!"
- 1984 Conservative Conference. A bomb is set off by the IRA in the hotel where the Cabinet are staying, killing five people. Thatcher survives, having just left the worst hit area.
- 1985 Labour Conference. In which Neil Kinnock took on the hard-left in his party with this brilliant quote, referring to Militant-dominated Liverpool City Council:
I'll tell you what happens with impossible promises. You start with far fetched resolutions. They are then pickled into a rigid dogma, a code, and you go through the years sticking to that, out-dated, misplaced, irrelevant to the real needs, and you end in the grotesque chaos of a Labour council - a Labour council!
- hiring taxis to scuttle round a city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers.
- There were walkouts from people who didn't like this speech. Militant were kicked out of the Labour Party a few years later, and Kinnock's strategy of taking the party to the centre and recaputuring political relevance eventually worked... although almost failed in 1992 due to a pro-conservative campaign in the press, culminating in the Sun's famous headline: "If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights"
- It should be noted that the "Labour council" in question was not, actually, trying to fire anyone. The background to this seemingly farcical situation was that in the period between the Conservative electoral victories in 1979 and 1983, Labour gained a considerable number of local councilors, since up until the Falklands War, the Conservative party had become steadily more and more unpopular. These new councillors, often left-wing and members of Militant, argued that they had been elected on a platform of increasing services and spending, which was the opposite of the Conservative government's policy. In order to raise the revenue necessary to fund this and replace the revenue from local authority grants that the central government had cut, they simply raised the "rates" (local property taxes). In response, after the Conservatives had won the 1983 election, they passed the Rates Act 1984, which set a limit on the rates local councils could charge, amongst other things. This was a controversial measure which the Labour party, and even some Conservatives, saw as overly centralizing power. Left-wing councils responded by passing budgets that were illegal under the new act, which was condemned by the Labour party, although something similar had happened in Poplar in the 1920s, or refusing to pass a budget at all to force the government to either intervene and provide local services, or concede. While Liverpool council claimed an initial victory when the Minister responsible gave them an extra £20m, they began to run out of money as a result of the next budget they had set, and to stave off bankruptcy the council delivered "90 day notices" of redundancy in order to stretch out the negotiating time a little longer. However, this backfired when these redundancy notices were taken seriously by council workers and the press, something Militant leaders now concede was a "tactical error".
- 2003 Conservative Conference. "The Quiet Man is turning up the volume"- Iain Duncan Smith was thrown out by his own parliamentary party at the end of October, just over a month later.
References in fiction:
- In the ill-fated ITV sitcom Barbara, Neil and his girlfriend Lucy visited Blackpool during the Tory Party Conference and is asked about the trip by his sister, Linda.
Linda: So tell me, where did you and Lucy do it this time? Under the pier? On top of a tram? Or on the Countwood Harry Ramsden's with a pickled egg in each hand?
Neil: Oh no, we went a bit more up-market this time.
Linda: Oh yeah? Where?
Neil: Tory Party Conference. (Sees news coverage on the TV). Well, you see Ann Widdecombe?
Neil: See the way the lecturn's wobbling?
Neil: We're at it under the stage.
Linda: Ann Widdecombe? You were doing it under Ann Widdecombe? Well, I suppose it's the nearest she'll ever come to it.
- Series 3, Episode 3 of The Thick of It features the Government's Party Conference in Eastbourne, which involves all kinds of ill-advised shenanigans and plans working at cross-purposes to get good publicity for the politicians—particularly a turf fight between Glenn and Malcolm over whether Nicola or the PM gets to use a particular sob story.
- Ben Elton's Gridlock satirises political conferences rather viciously, as in this day and age the actual voting process is pretty much a rubber-stamp exercise. Elton compares them to a company's annual sales conference, ie a good excuse to drink far too much on someone else's dime whilst pretending to get something useful done. Except that party political conferences are also good opportunity for behind the scenes wheeler-dealing.