Grassroots party members are increasingly unhappy about annual conferences held in big city centres – prompting some ministers to call for a return to the traditional seaside town venue. One minister even told us that it might be time to scrap the format altogether in favour of regional events with a single one-off US-style convention before general elections.
Even watching the events on TV you can see that there are far fewer “ordinary” members at conference – they are instead swamped by suited lobbyists, hacks and other denizens of the Westminster village. “It feels more like a McKinsey corporate convention,” one Tory MP said yesterday.
I spoke to half a dozen constituency members yesterday and the mood was one of broad unhappiness.
Beverley Sullivan, a delegate from Bury said that “cost” had put off many people from coming to Tory conference.
“I have spoken to quite a few people about this, one said it had cost her £1,000 for these four days, and she was elderly, a pensioner, so it’s really difficult,” she said. “Compared to the seaside towns there is nothing to do here really if you get a free hour or so.”
“They jack up their prices for those three or four days, the full conference is very very expensive, I seriously think we need to go back to the seaside towns, that would really support the tourism industry,” he said. “I have been surprised by the number of lobbyists, PR people, journalists, although I suppose you should expect that when we are in government.”
One minister said that two years ago he had brought 18 people from his constituency; this year there was just one. “They tend to be older, frankly, and always saw it as a pleasant last holiday of the summer, now that it’s in the big cities – which are more expensive – people are less keen.”
We heard similar expressions of frustration at both of the other main conferences from delegates of all stripes.
The FT reports this morning that fewer than a quarter of the 30,000 visitors to the three party conferences were card-carrying members. As one minister says: “Quite a few of us would make a donation not to come.”
In reality the parties are unlikely to scrap conference altogether, given that it is a money-spinner; the Tories admit to making a £2m profit this year. But don’t be surprised if there is a shift away from central Manchester and Birmingham, as lovely as they are, back to the beach. Labour is holding its 2013 conference in Bournemouth while the Lib Dems and TUC are in Brighton next year.
UPDATE: Tim Montgomerie has some similar thoughts - this is well worth a read.