Isabel Hardman

Why Tory members are deserting the conference hall

Why Tory members are deserting the conference hall
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One of the stories of this Conservative conference is the contrast between the crowd and atmosphere in the main conference hall, and the popularity of the fringes elsewhere. In previous years, the party has suffered stories about how corporate the whole event is, with members deciding not to bother with the expense of the whole thing. But this year, while there are more members turning up, they're finding very little to keep them in the hall.

Yesterday, a speaker in the hall inadvertently offered an explanation for this. The party has been doing more to increase contributions 'from the floor', she told the audience, saying it was important to involve members more than in the past. She then invited the next group of speakers 'from the floor' up to speak. What then followed was not what a delegate at Labour conference, for instance, would deem a 'contribution from the floor'. The speakers were all very good, but had clearly known for a while that they would be speaking, and were merely offering their perspectives from their time as members, rather than making any proposals on policy or the overall direction of the party.

Now, having sat through debates at Labour and Lib Dem conferences over the years, I can understand why the Tories would want to stage manage their 'contributions from the floor'. Not all members are very concise, for one thing. For another, members can get up and criticise party policy, which is inconvenient at the best of times, and even more so when your MPs and ministers are doing a pretty noisy job of that anyway. They might even hold votes that instruct the leadership to do something it doesn't want to.

All that said, it can't be a coincidence that the Tories are firstly struggling to attract the kind of mass membership that Labour now enjoys, and secondly that the members who have turned up are heading for the conference events where they can enjoy watching some debate and maybe even contribute themselves in the question-and-answer sessions. After all, they might as well just stay at home and watch the speeches on the TV, if that's all the party wants to offer them.