Choosing the subject for party conference fringe meetings is never easy. The RSA only does one big event at each of the main party gatherings so it is important that we choose something which will be both topical and distinctive. The problem is that the topic has to be chosen in spring but the events are in early autumn.
Three years ago we did pretty well. The issue was public opinion and how politicians should respond when most people are appparerntly misinformed or hold contradictory positions. It might not have been particularly topical but it was interesting enough to pack out the venues and provoke interesting debate. The year before last was even better. We made the judgment that spending cuts – and the politicians’ lack of candour about their necessity - would be the big issue even before it had really moved centre stage with the press and public. We got it right and many people commented on how we had chosen the emerging hot topic.
Last year it was as more mixed picture. Ironically, the events on the Big Society were packed and lively at Labour and LibDem conference, where in both cases sceptical audiences were largely talked round by more enthusiastic panels, but it was a bit flat in Birmingham with the Conservatives.
Partly this reflected the ambivalence of Tory activists about the concept but it was also because our Big Society event was just one of many others. In fact it was difficult to find an event which didn’t contrive in some way to link to the Big Society: Big Society transport, Big Society business, Big Society nuclear deterrence (only one of these is made up).
This year we are taking another gamble. The topic is: The Rise of the disaffected Citizen: what happens when mainstream politicians fail to deliver prosperity and security? The gamble is that come the autumn, in the face of a weak economy, falling living standards and declining public services, the public will be getting increasingly restless. Although the Conservatives benefitted from the LibDems’ meltdown and Labour’s southern discomfort in the local elections, none of the major UK parties or their leaders seems to be held in great esteem right now. This could get a whole lot worse.
As Philip Stevens writes in his morning’s FT, across Europe the beneficiary of centre right or centre left governments pursuing austerity policies has not been their traditional opposition but the nationalists or extreme right. The SNP offers a very moderate and progressive form of nationalism but its stunning performance shows that ‘nothing to do with Westminster’ may be a potent label for new political movements.
While politicians, activists and the press tend to present conference season as a competition between the three parties, it may be that the watching public see it as confirmation that the political establishment is out of touch. The fact that Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband may be having to shore up declining confidence in their own parties, while David Cameron may feel he has to speak to Tory traditionalists tired of compromise with their Coalition could mean that leaders’ speeches - which need urgently to connect with the public - are instead focussed on the party faithful.
Anyway – that’s the theory. If it turns out that the Coalition or the opposition have a surge in public enthusiasm we may look pretty silly. Then it will be up to me to say' sorry'. (And, ‘yes’, I have contrived this ending to allow me to use a terrible pun – which will be recognised only by fans of post war musicals - in the title).