One of the many joys that come with leaving Ministerial Office is that I no longer have any official obligation to attend the Conservative Party Conference – or indeed, any other party conference. As a result, I shall be appearing this year in Manchester at the conference only for a few hours, during which I shall be signing copies of the book that I am publishing on the politics of the last 50 years (readily to be found by any reader either online or at a bookshop under the title Hearts and Minds, to put in a shameless plug).
Of course, for some political aficionados these conferences are absolute bliss. But I have never shared that view – not least because I have always regarded political parties as a somewhat unfortunate necessity of modern, representative liberal democracy rather than as one of its pleasures. And partly also because I have (I suspect also in common with many readers) quite a strong aversion to enormous gatherings of like-minded people of any kind, preferring quiet conversations between friends of differing dispositions and peaceful ramblings across the countryside as a way of passing time when not engaged in serious work.
Nevertheless, I am compelled to admit that these strange events do have an important part to play in our democracy.
It strikes me very forcibly when I talk to groups of West Dorset students who have come up to see parliament or when I address student audiences in universities that the way we teach and learn about the constitution, both in the UK and in other countries, tends to dwell on institutions (government, parliament, judiciary, local government) and on electoral systems (first-past-the post, proportional representation and so forth), as if these were the only available building blocks of a democracy – whereas, in reality no liberal democracy could function in a state with many millions of people if there were not party organisations and party candidates. And no parliament or congress could function efficiently in the modern world if the members of that institution were not grouped into relatively stable party blocs.
I think it is in fact important that we remedy this deficiency in the way that our constitution is usually analysed and explained – not least because it lends credence to the increasingly fashionable view that there is something disreputable about party discipline, party loyalty and a party line.
The truth is that no electorate can be expected to choose a government in a parliamentary system if they are not presented with a relatively clear choice between competing propositions about how the country should be governed following that election – and this inevitably entails the formulation of, and broad adherence to, competing party lines by followers of each party who have at least some measure of discipline and loyalty.
So the party conferences, at which these lines are exposed and are subject to discussion by a wide range of people within each party do perform a significant role in enabling our democracy to function properly.
One does not have to love them in order to recognise their utility.