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19th September 2011

Boris Johnson, British politics and the incurable case of the ping pong political conference

The Mayor of London’s ping-pong prowess provides a useful metaphor for the insular nature of our party conference system

On the eve of the penultimate day of the 2008 Olympic Games, Boris Johnson made what is now regarded as an iconic statement in recent political commentary. “The game of ping pong,” he opined, brandishing his open-buttoned jacket in a statement of thoroughly British capriciousness, “was invented on the dining tables of England in 19th Century. It was called wiff-waff.

Whilst Johnson’s claims to the historical ownership of ping pong have been hotly disputed by a wealth of well-respected sporting historians, there is a somewhat interesting parallel to be drawn between British political proceedings and a game which fundamentally consists of an insubstantial plastic ball being thumped back and forth between players. The analogy can quite easily be applied to the forum of political conferencing, a successional bandying of party political banter residing at the very heart of policy formation.

In the wake of summertime riots and continual gripes concerning the economy, we are living in a state of wartime-like austerity – and as such one would hope that a form of genuine political consensus could be found. Merely a year ago, the anticipation of conflict between the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition at their respective party conferences was palpable, but the tension that had been mounting for a number of months was built into a media epic that ultimately failed to materialise. Nonetheless, the puppetry of political conference has historically been a provocative show of sniping, ‘witty’ one liners and precious little political substance.

In order to ascertain the level of ping pong prowess prevalent in the current conference system, we could revisit an article published by The Mancunion back in 2009. We compiled a ‘conference price list’ which showed how much it would cost for an individual student to attend, for example, the Conservative Party conference. It was suggested that the total cost – in excess of £100 – would be unrealistic for the ordinary student, adding weight to our claim that the conference was an inaccessible puppet show for the privileged.

However, when trying to ascertain ticket prices for this year’s conference season, the overall impression is one of increasing accessibility. The Liberal Democrats 2011 conference day tickets, for example, range from just £17 to £34 – not entirely unaffordable for a politically active student with an interest in current affairs. Does this suggest that the political conference season is beginning to divert away from the clichéd commentaries of puppetry and political ping pong? Further still, is it an indication the start of a small scale re-democratisation of domestic politics?

The setting of political conference season has, in recent years, been made infinitely more accessible due to the advent of 24 hour media, dedicated programming and politically devoted TV channels such as BBC Parliament. However, I take issue with the fact that conferences, at their heart, retain an air of delusion. Whilst many political commentators have argued that the institution of party conferencing is an iconic symbol of British democracy, the underlying reality is somewhat different.

To dream of us all, together, dancing blissfully down the parquet halls of democracy seems somewhat naïve. Even with lower prices and increasing geographical mobility (this year’s conferences are being held in Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham respectively), I still feel cheated by an insular conference system. In order to participate intimately with British politics, it is fundamental that observers are given the opportunity to ask questions of the politicians who are accountable to us directly; to absorb fragments of the conference atmosphere; and, ultimately, that we are able to engage with the political elite as much as possible.

This, unfortunately, is a barely viable option in the British political anathema. Yes, the Liberal Democrats have markedly reduced their prices for students.  But in order to get a broader sense of informed student opinion, would it not be better to give people access to this event – so crucial to party policy formation – for a nominal fee or (God forbid!) for free? Would it not say more to our youth to extend this hand of democracy, this connection that so intrinsically links politicians with their electorate, more readily?

Electoral facts speak volumes for the crisis of British politics. The 2010 general election saw just over half of the eligible electorate cast a ballot, with even fewer accepting the challenge of electoral reform in the AV referendum. Students at the time made it clear that they felt disenchanted with a system that was so extricated from everyday life; that voting was therefore not a reasonable course of action; that politics simply didn’t seem accessible.

Conference season provides analysts with the opportunity to dissect the minutiae and excite enthusiasts about forthcoming policy initiatives, somehow attempting to ignite a small flame of effervescent democratic hope within a nation. Conference season has the potential to utilise and maintain a small strand of democracy that, like the AV referendum, is direct and multifunctional. However, the current situation is one of glaring neglect. Upholding any sort of direct democratic relationship in this manner has been thwarted by a growing concern within the traditional party system to curry favour, to stabilise the three-party system and to celebrate ‘old boy’ public school politics via a week-long charade of back slapping and exuberant self-commendation.

Whilst we may have guffawed at Boris’ attempted stab to display some hidden sporting prowess, he inadvertently supported an analogy that highlights a fault most inherent within his profession. It is the regrettable lack of commitment to our few and far between outlets for direct democracy in Britain that pertains that the political conference will continue, much the same as in recent years, as just another stage-managed knockabout of game, set and match – without even so much as a rain check.

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