Of conferences and conventions
As a political junkie and avid America watcher, I’ve had the back-to-back pleasure of watching first the Republican and Democratic conventions before the Liberal Democrat, Labour, and Conservative party conferences in the United Kingdom.
Seeing how they compare and contrast has been immensely entertaining. Some elements are mirrored in both – rising stars in early time slots have their talent scouted and evaluated by watchful journalists keen to out-scoop their contemporaries and declare the kings-in-waiting before the time of accession has dawned. Boris Johnson’s speech was the most hotly anticipated event of the conference, his public and private antagonism with David Cameron ensured the media demanded he use the podium as a personal launching pad – his inevitable backing of his party leader spun as a bold and loyal move, as if there was any chance he was about to use the platform to declare a leadership challenge in the middle of a term. Platitudes rain down on Yvette Cooper, and Chuka Umunna, the most likely of the next generation of Labour leaders – just in case a newspaper could be accused of not having ‘called it’. The likes of Julian Castro and Susana Martinez are applauded beyond their ability and delivery, by an audience all too aware that they could well be the eventual candidates from the next great underrepresented American demographic.
What is lost in the conferences, unsurprisingly, is universality. Broad attempts to speak to the nation at large and appeal to the floating 10% that decide every election are lost in soundbites, and never absorbed by a disinterested public, who don’t care, because they simply aren’t watching. The most effectual and well received speeches are always those that pander to the base, who after all, make up 100% of the audience. Delegates in America take their role very seriously, with procedure, protocol, and process playing a large part of the Democratic convention in particular. In the United Kingdom, the conference is very important for reconnecting the front line politicians with the base. This is particularly salient with regards the Liberal Democrats as many in the party at large feel increasingly isolated from the politicians who have had to make so many concessions in coalition with the Conservatives.
Leaders speeches are undoubtedly important – if a Party leader or Presidential candidate can’t score well facing the friendliest audience they’ll ever orate to in their careers; the media spiral that will accompany their failings could be terminal for their ambitions. The most important element is to appear competent and personable – two qualities Ed Miliband has been accused of lacking prior to his speech, which was suitably inoffensive enough to gain rave reviews from a UK media as willing to write the Ed Miliband comeback story as the US media was to write the Mitt Romney comeback story.
Where the events differ dramatically is their approach to style and substance. The Conservatives used this season to test the waters with regards to policies to be implemented in the next budget. The Liberal Democrats used the opportunity to remind the public, and their base, of the ‘brake’ effect that they will seek to have on the Conservative led coalition. The Republicans constructed their entire event around a Barack Obama quote – “You didn’t build that” and had Clint Eastwood talking down to a chair. As Americanization sets in ever deeper in the United Kingdom, you feel it can’t be long until Gary Barlow is on stage performing his new single ‘Keep the pound’, or Wayne Rooney is asked to wave the Red flag as the curtain comes down.
Ultimately, the events are about avoiding embarrassment, providing a temporary shot in the arm to your base, and enjoying a week of good PR as you receive a temporary bump in the polls of between 2% and 4% – which inevitably fades as the political zeitgeist moves on. The real policy behind the politics still happens behind closed doors – in back rooms, or at fringe events. But the peculiar political shows we tune in to at this time of year still hold a remarkable appeal even to those of us who know how little they really mean.