Whether she realised it or not, Justine Greening’s criticism of the Conservative Party’s decision to bar from its conference People’s Vote, which campaigns for a second referendum, has a deeper point. And it is not about Brexit. It’s about the oppressive style of Tory conference management and the silencing of party members – something you’d be forgiven for thinking was just an attribute of socialist parties.
As Greening says – she’s right for once – you don’t win a debate by banning it. I am afraid to say that’s what the Conservative Party has been doing for years.
It used to be the case that we had ‘debates’ at conference. Motions were submitted by the constituencies, they were listed in the handbook and representatives could vote on which they wanted to discuss. Truly democratic; unfortunately too often the membership chose unpopular motions on hanging, Europe, and lack of party democracy. So the managers decided not to go public with the result of the vote and instead just told us which motions were to be debated. Suddenly it was all about small business, Sunday trading laws, and Aids.
In those days it was also the case that members of the audience were allowed to speak in the big set debates, and headline Cabinet members replied to them*. You filled in a slip which was handed to a desk on the side of the podium, and a cross-section of members would be called on a particular subject. Needless to say the law and order debate was always the most popular, with various people saying how much they wanted to have other people strung up. The party managers therefore started filtering who they chose to speak. The debates became bland, though occasionally someone would get past the filtering system and bring the house alive. ‘Castrate child sex offenders’ and ‘bring back the birch’ were two speeches during those years that the party managers went ballistic over.
These days ordinary members at party conferences are unwanted by the organisers, partly because they cause problems for the press office and partly because the Parliamentary party do not like having to talk to them. Even Conservative MPs don’t want to attend their own party conference any longer. (Question: How many MPs turn up? Answer: fewer than half). So the centre stage is an expensive showpiece for the party to do something for the media. As the Telegraph (October 5, 2016) wrote two years ago: ‘Think of the party members. They’ve paid up to £520 each for this. They don’t get to vote on policy or express their opinions. They’re paying through the nose for the privilege of clapping.’
The fringe is the only place where you can hear some kind of discussion, and even that is controlled by who is allowed to set up an event inside the security zone, or who is prepared to pay a lot for a listing in the handbook. (Dangerous organisations which argue for party democracy or freedom from the State are never allowed these privileges and so have to resort to handing out flyers at the entrance.)
This year in Birmingham I suspect Jacob Rees-Mogg will be packing the fringe venues wherever he speaks, and government ministers will be addressing half-empty rooms paid for by lobbyists. Those flogging views that are anything less than Brexit will be booed or ignored. Conference is going to be difficult for the prime minister and no matter what CCHQ says, she is in a more difficult predicament than John Major was all those years ago. The membership blame her for the General Election, and on Europe they want something she is not offering. I doubt if this is going to be one of the best conferences for the party.
When the organisers allow members to participate is when some of us will return to conference. Until then, I plan to watch Andrew Neil, save myself £520 and not be treated like one of a herd of cattle heading to the abattoir.
* The most notable response a minister gave was Norman Tebbit’s reply to Ian Picton’s comment that unemployment causes rioting: ‘My father grew up in the depression and he did not riot, he got on his bike and looked for work, and kept looking for work until he found it’ – hence the phrase wrongly attributed to Tebbit: ‘On your bike’.