The Labour Party confirmed this week it would be cancelling its annual party conference in Liverpool. Instead, it’s expected to be replaced by an online policy conference and it’s highly likely that other parties will now follow suit in cancelling theirs.
The cancellation of this year’s conference season has been widely expected, and for Labour it’s been a relatively uncontroversial decision – like all large scale events, it’s just not possible to organise it in the current climate. Cast your mind back to simpler times and you might recall that they were nearly dropped last year amid the furore of the Supreme Court forcing the recall of Parliament. If we were almost happy to cancel conference season then, over something that now seems comparatively trivial, cancelling them this year in the face of COVID-19 is a no-brainer.
However, there’s been little analysis into what the wider ramifications of this move will be. In many ways this is hardly surprising, public attitudes towards party conference season tend to range from general disinterest to outright anger – how dare public servants spend a few days by the sea or in a city coming dangerously close to enjoying themselves? Even among conference regulars, there are many who wouldn’t be sad to see the back of them. Take away free bars and buffets and what exactly do party conferences offer that can’t be done online? Policy decisions? There’s online voting for that. Fringe events? Just stick them on Zoom. Big speeches? They all end up on YouTube anyway.
But whilst conferences are easy to dismiss as overlong and overblown, for many groups and organisations they are essential and their cancellation will be another blow in an already difficult year. For small businesses, charities and NGOs, party conferences remain their best and sometimes only way of getting their message across to policymakers. So too are they an essential part of the hospitality trade in the cities that host them. Last year it was estimated that the Conservative Party Conference brought in £32m to the Manchester economy and no doubt bars and hotels in Liverpool and Birmingham would have been especially looking forward to conference season this year. Finally, for the parties themselves, conference remains one of the best means of fundraising available and it’s unlikely they’ll be able to get away with charging people over a thousand pounds to access a series of webinars.
Perhaps more than anything though, party conferences offer something that just can’t be replicated in any other setting. Nothing else can bring such a large and varied collection of politicians, business leaders, policy experts, academics and local activists together in the spirit of sharing ideas and shaping the future. In this sense, the greatest loss might be the chance meetings that never happen and the ideas that are never sparked as a result.
We may not see a complete return to a normal conference season even in 2021. If a vaccine has not been found it’s hard to see how a return to the days of 100+ people elbowing each other out of the way to get to the free bar in a tiny function room will be possible. Even with a vaccine in place, the economic effects of the crisis may see the extravagance of a five day long conference replaced with something shorter and more subdued. But the importance of physical interaction is surely too great to see them die a death entirely and we hope that this staple of the political calendar will, one day, rise again.