Unfortunately the coverage of the party conference seems to focus on two points. Firstly that it was a bit dull, a bit boring and that the hall wasn’t full when David Cameron made his set piece speech.
Let’s start with the accusations of being boring, last year the big message coming out of the conference was that the deficit needs to be closed and the economy sorted out. This year the message was that the deficit needs to be closed and the economy sorted out.
While repeating the message may not be the most exciting thing it is essential that we aren’t blown of course by the temptation to announce something new just for the sake of saying something new.
On the point about the empty seats for David Cameron’s speech I think that a number of things conspired to suppress numbers. Firstly this is a mid-term conference, many party members don’t go to conference every year. They tend to go to the conferences ahead of and immediately after general elections. The decision to move our conferences to big cities has pushed up the total price considerably, combined with the squeeze on personal finances, a number of members are just priced out of the market.
Finally the timing of the PM’s speech. It was in the PM. Despite recent efforts the membership of the party is still South heavy and Manchester is in the North. For someone in London it is a good four hour trip home, for those from the South West or South coast you can add a couple of extra hours to that. Staying for the PM’s speech starting at 2.30PM would mean leaving Manchester at about 4.00PM and not getting home until well into the evening.
Having the leader’s speech mid morning would make it much easier for people to stay and listen yet still get home with plenty of time to see children in the evening or get themselves sorted for work the next day.
This was never going to be a fireworks conference but a few unforced errors, increased costs and scheduling issues meant that we came out of it without much of a bounce.