In the representative tradition, voting is the procedure by which decisions are taken and legitimised.1
As a consequence, the authority of conference votes and decisions has tended to be over-estimated.2
Political parties generally use votes to convince the public (and sometimes themselves) that they are democratic even though their leaderships are reluctant to be bound by them. The Conservative and Liberal Democratic parliamentary parties have never pretended to be receiving instructions from their conference, so the issue of conference sovereignty is really only an issue for Labour and the Greens. Although Clement Atlee wrote that conference “lays down the policy of the party and issues instructions which must be carried out by the Executive, the affiliated organisation, and its representatives in Parliament and on local authorities”,3
there are numerous examples of Labour leaders ignoring resolutions or interpreting them “loosely” because they were “vague and often contradictory” (Punnett, 1987: 104). Despite constitutional claims about the sovereignty of conference, the Labour parliamentary party has maintained, particularly when in power, a margin of interpretation.4
Robert McKenzie even considered that
like Bagehot’s constitutional monarch, the annual party conference has the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, and the right to warn. But this is not to say that the members of the mass organisation have the right under British parliamentary system to control or direct the actions of their parliamentary leaders (1964: 583).