Analysis

Conferences by Convention

Thomas Messenger

MHP Public Affairs, Account Director, Tom Messenger reviews the Democrat’s first ever online Convention, and looks ahead to what the UK has in store

UK party conferences often stand as pretty poor comparisons to their US convention counterparts.

For every card vote or composite meeting scheduled at a British conference, you can bet that the Americans will have a made-for-television celebrity speaker or musical performance backed up with the kind of whooping and hollering that can only come from packing a US sports venue to the rafters with political obsessives.

Yes, there’s been an undoubted trend to move our conferences closer to a US format, but it’s not become engrained in our political culture. Neil Kinnock’s Sheffield Rally, while not a party conference, kick-started the trend but is still derided today. Blair and Cameron downplayed the focus on internal matters at their respective conferences, but this was much to the chagrin of long-time members. And the Conservative Party has continued to elevate the importance of set piece Ministerial speeches over party participation democracy.

The Democrats have just concluded their first ever National Convention held entirely remotely and via online video links. The Republican National Conventional will still be a live event but significantly downsized and, even more significantly, closed to press. Comparatively, all the major British political parties are opting for virtual conferences. So as the annual trips to the British seaside are cancelled, could this be the year where the UK catches up to the US?

But this may be an early lead for the Brits.

While a small part of the DNC focused on procedure to nominate the candidates for President and Vice President (including a wonderful moment where Rhode Island chose to use their nominating address to advertise the state’s famous calamari production), this convention is much more about being a mass broadcast to an electorate which has become increasingly engaged with the elongated selection and election process.

The telethon style arguably even works better for this purpose than the annual in-person showcase, with celebrity hosts Eva Longoria and Julia Louis-Dreyfus able to take viewers on a journey to part with their vote just as if they were parting with their cash to support PBS.

This year, the focus is much more on ordinary folks with a not insignificant proportion of air time given over to powerful testimonies from regular Joes, consistent with the theme of promoting Biden’s connections with Americans of all backgrounds.

While some contributions have been somewhat muted due to the limitations of the format (Andrew Cuomo, Chuck Schumer and Bill Clinton particularly come to mind), others have been knock-out-of-the-park rallying cries not just for Democrats, but for America as a whole. Eviscerating and history-making speeches from the Obamas and Kamala Harris will be referenced for years to come. After a primary campaign marred by sometimes less-than-eloquent debate appearances, Joe Biden delivered the acceptance speech he had been preparing for his entire life. His pledge to be a “Democratic candidate but an American President” was a succinct precise for the entirety of the Convention.

The British conferences are, in comparison, going to continue to focus on communicating to their Party faithful, albeit with little agreement on the most appropriate format:

  • Labour is hosting ‘Connected’, a fully interactive expo of speeches, training, rallies, and policy discussions, albeit without the usual array of contentious motions and delegate votes. Keir Starmer must be relieved.
  • The Liberal Democrat version is even going as far as emulating in function its traditional democratic participation and accountability responsibilities on top of the ‘big reveal’ for its newly elected Leader (result next Thursday) and a range of fringe meetings.
  • The Conservatives are still keeping their cards close to their chest, but a fully virtual conference is scheduled for early October.

As ever, the United States leads the way in mass gatherings for mass media. The technological capabilities of the US and UK parties remain even, with many UK parties having made a concerted effort to adopt US campaigning practices in recent years. But the pick-up and public interest of the US conventions will dwarf anything that we will see in the UK in the coming months. This is no reflection on the UK parties, far from it, but a sign of the differing purposes and political landscapes over the past 18 months. First off the stocks will be Labour with the ‘Connected’ event next month…