One of the privileges or perhaps frustration of living in a city like Brighton & Hove is that every few years, there will be a visit by a Political Circus, usually in the Autumn when the bigger party conferences take place. This year we have had two opportunities to see our political parties out in public, the Greens last week and this week Labour. Labour has been a regular visitor over the last 10 years or so and in that time there has also been at least one visit by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. The experience of these visits varies depending on the party concerned and ones personal contacts. In my role as Sussex coordinator for Churches Together I was contacted by the Christian Socialist Movement in preparation for the conferences of 2004 and 2005 to explore how the work of CSM could engage with local churches in the City. This was a very fruitful engagement and helped to unpack some of these circus acts for people outside of the political tribe. As Labour were the party of Government, the opportunity to meet Ministers and even the Prime Minister on a very human level, left an impact on many people including myself who would not consider joining a political party. On the occasions when the other parties visited Brighton and Hove, the opportunities for engagement was not on the same scale, but just as welcome by those of us who believe that politics, like faith is not something that should be limited to those who are on the inside of the discussions. Brighton and Hove regularly welcomes visitors for all sorts of conferences, and one would surely hope that the Political conferences out of all of them would be ones when the delegates would want to engage with local residents, beyond the transactions in bars, clubs and restaurants.
This years conference is not on the scale of those of 2004 and 2005 or 2009. This is in part because Labour are no longer the party of Government, and with the financial crisis that is now facing the party, one wonders if this will be one of the last such events on this scale. The reducing levels of support for all of our political parties also raises questions about the way in which all parties should act when together. One aspect of such conferences is that of security, which also impacts on the way in which those of us who are outside the party can observe the conference at work. Once the delegates are inside the secure zone, the only way in for most of us is through TV screens. One of my friends is due to take a group of political students into the conference on Wednesday, sadly the accreditation process has taken up a lot of her time and led to some of the students being turned away in advance of the visit. Whilst this level of scrutiny addresses the concerns of those being paid to reduce risk, it impacts on our ability to engage with these tribes when they are together outside the Westminster village. Only time will tell if the changing dynamic of our parties, and the need to persuade more of us to vote for and even join these organisations might lead to a very different way of allowing us to engage with the grease paint and bright lights.