The empty chairs for David Cameron’s speech said it all: the party conference is no longer a political event. This was my eleventh Tory conference, and, even in this short time, I’ve noticed a creeping corporate takeover. The difference struck me yesterday, when I attended a packed fringe meeting in something called the ‘Freedom Zone’. It was set up to discuss banned topics: how to cut taxes, the case for a referendum on EU membership, etc. The crowd was younger, of a libertarian bent — all activists and enthusiasts of some kind, a refreshing change from the sanitised and often lifeless feel of the rest of the official conference.
As I moved back to the official venue, it felt like I was leaving the politics zone and entering the corporate zone. I’m left feeling a bit nostalgic for the old conferences: seaside meetings, sometimes bust-ups, between the party leadership and party members. But lobbyists are steadily supplanting activists across all political groups. The TUC didn’t even bother to stage a proper conference this year, staying in London. Its members effectively merged their annual shindig with the Labour Party, to which it provides 85 per cent of the funding.
If conferences are increasingly attended by people who are there to meet each other, no wonder there are empty seats in the hall. Most of the passholders couldn’t care less about what’s being said in the hall. It reflects a deeper malaise across our politics more generally. If David Cameron noticed a bit on an echo as he spoke today, that’s why.
UDPATE: AdamDR makes a very good point: there were many excellent fringes this year, which were packed with activists.The two think tanks I'm involved with, the Centre for Social Justice and the Centre for Policy Studies, asked bold and necessary questions. The mood at their events was upbeat. Although I have to say that every question asked during the interview with IDS that I conducted on Sunday night came from a lobbyist or an NGO. I will not criticise, as without the support of AgeUK and Prudential the IDS session on Sunday night would not have happened. Both of them simply want to promote discussion, and I wasn't influenced in any way by them. But I agree with Tim Montgomerie's thoughts on ConservativeHome this morning. It's a question of balance, and the balance has slipped too far away from the activists.