Conferences? What conferences?

Peter KellnerPresident
October 17, 2011, 8:49 AM GMT+0

As our daily polling shows little fluctuation in voting intention despite conference season, Peter Kellner questions the need for conferences so far from an election

According to one of the traditional laws of polling, surveys conducted during the party conference season should be treated with some scepticism, for they usually give a short-lived boost to whichever party is grabbing the headlines at the time. It’s better (so the theory runs) to wait until the dust settles and then compare the position with that before the first party conference.

YouGov’s daily polling allows this to be tested. Taking voting intention first, support for each the parties fluctuated during this year’s conference season, but only within a narrow three point range: Labour 40-43%. Conservative 36-39%, Lib Dems 8-11%. It is quite possible for all of the variations we found to be the result of sampling fluctuations. It could be that the true support remained a solid Labour 41%, Conservative 37%, Lib Dem 10% throughout. If we didn’t know that the conference season had taken place, our voting figures would have done nothing to arouse suspicion that anything different from usual had gone on.

However, sometimes voting intention is that last thing to change. As an economist would say, it can be a lagging indicator. Could the conference season have affected voters’ attitudes towards the government, the party leaders or the economy? Here are the figures, comparing what we found in our poll for the Sunday Times a month ago just before the Liberal Democrat conference, and our latest survey, conducted a week after the end of the Conservative conference (and immediately before Liam Fox’s resignation).

14th-16th Sept13th-14th Oct

Government approval rating (% approve minus % disapprove)



Cameron approval rating (% ‘doing well’ minus % ‘doing badly)



Miliband approval rating



Coalition parties (% working together ‘well’ minus % ‘badly’)



Coalition good for people like you? (% good minus % bad)



The economy (Coalition managing it ‘well’ minus ‘badly’)



In short, nothing has really changed: Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg look slightly less popular than a month ago, and the Coalition partners thought to be working together a little better – but even these changes are just as likely to be the result of sampling fluctuation.

During Labour’s conference in Liverpool, I suggested to the Guardian’s Michael White that Labour should have scrapped this year’s conference, and next year’s, and recalled only when the next election started to draw near. He reported this in his conference diary, and nobody regarded my idea as ridiculous. Since then other commentators have made a similar point. At the time I intended my suggestion half-flippantly. I have changed my mind. I no longer regard the idea as flippant at all.

Our latest results underline how absurd it is to hold party conferences at this stage in the electoral cycle, now we have fixed-term parliaments. Once upon a time, Labour and Liberal conferences counted because they were, in effect, their parties’ annual parliaments. Debates were often real and passionate. Their results mattered.

By the 1990’s, all this had changed. Labour totally, and the Lib Dems partially, adopted the Conservative (and, from the old days, Soviet Communist) view that annual conferences should showcase the party leaders, not the arguments that divided party members. This process has reached the point that, much of the time, party conferences are synthetic occasions that the public, rightly, regards as irrelevant to their daily lives. Indeed, I suspect that the annual conferences are doing more harm than good, by reinforcing the public scepticism that our politicians are more interested in putting on a show than in tackling Britain’s problems.

Not all party conferences are non-events. Last year’s post-election conferences gave us the riveting climax of the Miliband brothers competing for Labour’s leadership, and the two Coalition partners defending to their activists their relationship with each other. These post-election conferences should stay, for real politics is always bound to break through. So should pre-election conferences, for it is right that parties should present to their members and the wider public their election platform in some detail.

As for the others, I see no point in them. Party leaders don’t need expensive, set piece annual conferences in order to make big speeches. There are other, and far better ways, for parties to conduct internal policy debates: Labour’s policy forums are a step in the right direction. And scrapping most party conferences would make it just that bit harder for lobbyists and companies to bend the ears of senior politicians – and that would be a clear gain for democracy.

Now we know that the public pays little heed to mid-term conferences, the last reason for keeping them has surely gone.

See all our political trackers, including Voting Intention, Approval and Economy, here