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Nadine Dorries MP

Nadine Dorries MP: If we want to bring our members back to conference, we should allow them to air their views

If you are someone who has spent many years enjoying conference, you could be forgiven for having stopped at home for the last few years - or at least, that’s where I thought you were.

The conference emphasis has shifted from having been a special time for activists to become involved and have their voices heard, to a week when the lobbying and political class get to eat, drink and party on fat corporate expense accounts.

Gone are the older couples walking around with plastic carrier bags stuffed with a conference programme, literature, political hand outs and a conspicuous hand-written time table of which meetings to attend, popping out of a jacket top pocket. In the plastic bag, the programme was pencilled in with stars next to the fringe meetings which provide free drinks and sandwiches at lunchtime, just in case there was no time to get back to the hotel.

Students asking awkward questions on the fringe are no more, and you will have to look long and hard to find an association Chairman attending to check out potential candidates for an upcoming selection. 

Instead, meetings are packed with smart thirty-somethings in pin-striped suits asking complex and detailed questions, and expecting answers of a similarly comprehensive nature in order to report back to their clients - the subtext reading, "do you know how many bottles of Pinot Grigio I had to drink at your expense in order to obtain this information?"

Activists from associations across the country once used conference to make friends and compare notes, year after year. Where are they now?

Conference was the annual Conservative family gathering by the seaside. When the sun went down and the adults went to bed, the youngsters stayed up and seriously partied until dawn. The front lounge of the Highlife at Bournemouth was a sight to behold at 5am as staff cleared away the last of the revellers into the remnants of the dark night, just as Nicky Campbell and his technicians picked their way through the discarded glasses, to set up for the first radio interview at six.

Conference is now dominated by lobbyists and business and held in international conference centres such as Birmingham and Manchester. There are no low cost B+Bs looking to extend the season with attractive cut price offers. It’s a conference hotel or nothing. With the cost of a pass, travel, food and accommodation, there is little change from £1000, which means the majority of activists simply cannot afford to attend.

Or, so I thought.

If anyone caught the news last week and saw the UKIP conference in Birmingham maybe, like me, you saw the people who used to attend our conference sat in the audience? Did you see the row upon row of the men and women who used to deliver our leaflets and canvass our voters? Maybe it suddenly dawned on you why our membership has diminished to extraordinarily low levels as UKIP’s increases.

If we want to bring our members back, maybe we should start by giving them a reason to belong? A platform to air their views? A chance to be on television, letting the world know they want a referendum on Europe? Maybe we should acknowledge that conference was always about the activist and not about big business.

This year, for the first time, regional BBC stations are not sending journalists to conference. If even the BBC are getting fed up with the sterile corporate atmosphere, maybe it’s time for the party chairman to realise we've got it wrong and if we want to win back our members, we should take a look at how UKIP have nicked them in the first place.

Just as we were hell-bent on alienating our activists, UKIP were focused on providing them with a home, and as I spotted one plastic carrier bag after another, I realised, it appears to have worked.


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