As the conference season for UK political parties draws to a close some are beginning to wonder whether they have now passed their sell-by date. What was once a cross between rah-rah events for the faithful and serious policy-making forums has now become little more than made-for-tv events that take place in front of an audience of bused-in supporters and lobbyists. And to ensure that there is no chance of the politicians, and the London-based chatterati, actually bumping into real people these events take place behind a cordon sanitaire that makes airport security look free and easy.
Another event that has similarly failed to evolve is the Annual General Meeting. Each year hundreds of quoted companies spend enormous sums on events that, in most cases, have become pointless. There is no doubt that the leaders of publicly-quoted companies should be both accessible and accountable to their audiences. However, AGMs are not the place. Shareholder democracy has joined the ranks of top oxymorons. The meetings are typically attended by a mixture of former employees, axe grinders, professional shareholders, and the lost and bewildered. For most organisations they have ceased to serve any real purpose.
A good example of how pointless they have become would be the annual vote on directors’ remuneration. There is usually an acrimonious discussion during which ordinary shareholders complain about the directors of “their” company receiving the sort of sums of money that would make Croesus blush. This is normally followed by a vote. The small shareholders unanimously vote “no” on their handsets, wait while the computer works out how statistically insignificant they are, and then it is announced to the hall that thanks to the previously received votes from the absent institutional shareholders a total of 98% have voted in favour. It always reminds me of that great joke from the Two Ronnies: “Last night the Kremlin was broken into and next year’s election results were stolen.”
The two events could do with a face-lift. Both suffer from a lack of real understanding of their core purpose. They both take place because they’ve always taken place. In each case the organisers feel constrained by what they have to do and feel unable to focus on what they’d like to do. Attempts to re-purpose them often end up merely tinkering around the edges. In my experience, as much effort goes into deciding on the contents of the shareholder goody bag as into the content of the keynote speech.
Introducing a greater level of interactivity would be a good idea. At the party conferences, rather than the usual suspects lining up one after another to give set-piece presentations to a somnolent audience, perhaps they could get the delegates to split into groups to discuss specific issues. The same could work with AGMs. The formal business could be rattled through and then the senior executives – and there are normally plenty of them – could sit with small groups and hold discussions. And what’s more, these discussions could be webcast making them far more inclusive. Radical though it may be, in both instances it would be the delegates who would decide what they wanted to talk about rather than the leaders. Who knows, the leaders may even find it useful. But whatever happens, I just hope that those planning the next round of meetings don’t just start by saying: “Now, what did we do last year?”