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Party pieces

Simon Barrow

BarrowThe annual party conference season has always been a trade-off between public participation and public relations. These days, the number of actual decisions taken is minimal, while the amount of time spent smooth-talking on television, radioand online has risen exponentially.

The real aim of these yearly jamborees, one organiser suggested in an unguarded, metaphorically mixed, moment, is to 'keep the troops' chins up' while 'not letting too many cats out of the bag'.

So bad vibes and bad felines are a definite no-no. But unfortunately that advice appeared not quite to have reached the Home Secretary as she strode to the podium in Manchester.

'I'm not making this up,' she declared, while suggesting that an illegal Bolivian immigrant had been allowed to stay in Britain, aided by the Human Rights Act, because he had a cat. It turned out that he was an overstayer, not an illegal entrant, and that the moggy - though given a walk-on part by the judge in a jocular aside - was hardly decisive. But the tale still went down well with the party faithful because it reinforced what they wanted to believe.

Far from being upbraided for her créativité with la verité, it was Mrs May's critic Ken Clarke, who found himself upbraided for not unreasonably suggesting that this attempt to rubbish legal process was unhelpful and artless.

Then again, we should not forget that it is that nice Mr Clarke who has overseen massive cuts and wholesale restrictions to civil legal aid, following the precedent set by the previous Labour government. These changes will severely inhibit the quantity and quality of justice available to poor and vulnerable people in England and Wales.

Sadly, this has not hit the headlines with anything like the force of the caricatured cat, illustrating the way in which the conference circuses have mostly become purveyors of smoke signals via the media, rather than bread and roses for the people.

What is to be done? Some suggest abandoning these annual charades, others their radical resculpting. 'Party conferences as we know them are completely broken and unless reform is kicked into gear straight away they are in serious risk of abolition,' declares elections expert Gareth Knight.

Few are confident that party managers are really willing to let democracy flourish again in their theatres of power. But the expansion of 'grassroots zones' on the fringes indicates paths by which ordinary members might attempt to wrest some control from the apparatchiks.

The problem, as Knight points out, is that the success of the fringe in grabbing attention depends upon it being organised around a healthy core. So maybe breakaway movements will be needed. Or even attention given to the inventive chaos of the Greens, whose leader Caroline Lucas made perhaps the most politically substantial speech of conference season - to an audience touchingly unmanicured for television. 

Simon Barrow