The battle to save the party conference

Party conferences are increasingly being viewed as a waste of time and money, but for many lobbyists they are crucial. David Singleton examines the case for and against.

Tory conference, Credit Ray Tang: Rex Features
Tory conference, Credit Ray Tang: Rex Features

As politicians, lobbyists and journalists - and the odd party member - clambered aboard the train to Birmingham for the Liberal Democrats' annual conference earlier this year, not everyone was bowled over with enthusiasm for the weeks ahead.

'The real issue at all three conferences is the madness that surrounds them,' Weber Shandwick's public affairs chairman Jon McLeod wrote in PRWeek (21 September).

'A seething horde of humanity swarms over the political class for four or five Pinot Grigio-soaked days and nights. A fortune is spent on policing ... and the whole show is put on for the media. It's got to stop. In these hard economic times the money should be spent on something more productive.'

As this year's party conference season got into full swing, it became increasingly clear that the annual events are dominated by corporate PR consultants, charity lobbyists and media representatives.

At many fringe events, the questions to top politicians came from representatives of special interest groups, rather than rank-and-file party members. Research by the ConservativeHome website found there were 7,000 delegates from the media and lobby groups at this year's Tory conference, compared with just 4,000 party members.

The backlash begins

A number of influential figures started to join McLeod's campaign to end party conferences. As the Tory event drew to a close, Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail noted some of the groups that took expensive floor space next to the Tory conference hall. He cited the BBC, the Airport Operators' Association, E.ON, Lloyds Banking Group, the Nuclear Industry Association, Royal Mail, the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, the Tobacco Retailers' Alliance and the National Union of Teachers.

'I make no allegation of improper behaviour by any of these organisations, but they are not there for charity,' wrote Letts. 'They want something in return for their time and money.'

In The Guardian, columnist Martin Kettle complained that party conferences were now 'public relations presentations' in which genuine debate was stifled by party managers. Kettle concluded: 'Modern party conferences are dominated by special interests, lobby groups, single-issue campaigners and the media. They are a waste of time, a waste of space and a waste of money.'

But for many lobbyists, the party conferences are a key date in the calendar and would be sorely missed were they to be scrapped. The annual events are seen as vital for networking, building relationships, renewing friendships, gathering intelligence and booking further detailed meetings. Bell Pottinger Public Affairs MD Tim Collins says: 'They are rarely the place where detailed negotiations can or should take place, but they are often where the initial contact leading to much longer later talks happens. Plus pretty much everyone in the public affairs world - either client or agency side - is fascinated by politics, so of course conferences are huge fun for all of us.'

A light touch

Insight Public Affairs MD John Lehal is also a fan and believes that clients can benefit if they adopt 'a light touch approach ... turn up to listen to debates to understand emerging policy, informally network with political contacts, and bump into friends and sector colleagues.'

Many in-house public affairs consultants are also keen for the party conference format to survive intact - although some admit that more could be done online.

For George Crozier, external relations manager at the Chartered Institute of Taxation, conferences still have a great deal of value both for lobbyists and for the democratic process. Even if the wine is often a bit dodgy.

He says: 'However ropey the Pinot Grigio and however sweaty the scrum at the bar, party conferences are an essential part of our political process - good for parties, public affairs professionals and the country.

'Leaving aside grumbles about security bills and carbon footprints, we should recognise the role conferences play in sustaining our political parties, and the role our parties play in sustaining our democracy. Party democracy is a valuable, but quite frail, part of our political system. People can lobby their MPs but if they want to make more of a difference parties are still the main vehicle for achieving that.'

Part of the conversation

Crozier, a former Lib Dem staffer, believes that parties and their members get four main things out of conferences: profile; policy; training and solidarity. Some of this is frequently overlooked, he adds. Lib Dem members, for example, attended some 120 separate training sessions at this year's conference, from leaflet design to electoral law.

But should lobbyists leave the party members to it? 'Not if we want to be part of the public policy conversation,' says Crozier. 'The conference season is the single best opportunity for concentrated networking with people in related organisations.'

Despite McLeod's grumblings, most lobbyists remain party conference aficionados. PRWeek recently spoke to 15 of the UK's leading public affairs firms to gauge levels of activity during this year's party conference season (PRWeek, 7 October). The firms sent a combined total of 117 consultants to the Tory conference in Manchester and 80 to the Labour conference in Liverpool. A further 68 attended the recent Liberal Democrat event in Birmingham. Looking ahead to 2012, most consultancies expected to have similar presence.

Most, but not all. The Whitehouse Consultancy was the only consultancy approached by PRWeek that did not send anyone to any of the conferences.

MD Chris Whitehouse says: 'Having watched the various parties in recent weeks, and having seen Conservative conferences - which tend to be more party rallies anyway - first hand, I truly believe that party conferences have had their time and frankly are more of a drain on resources than anything else, particularly at a time of such economic uncertainty.'

He adds: 'I'm surprised these days when people come away from a party conference with anything more than a hangover and a huge credit card bill.'

TIMELINE - KEY MOMENTS IN CONFERENCE HISTORY

1980: As opposition mounted over her economic policies, Conservative Party leader Margaret Thatcher stressed her determination to last the course. 'The lady is not for turning,' she declared, to widespread applause. The speech has subsequently been seen as her defining moment in politics.

1984: The IRA's bombing of The Grand hotel in Brighton prompted Tory leader Margaret Thatcher to discard any partisanship in her conference speech. She declared: 'The fact that we are gathered here now - shocked, but composed and determined - is a sign not only that this attack has failed, but that all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail.'

1985: Labour leader Neil Kinnock used his conference speech to launch an attack on the communist Militant Tendency movement that dominated Liverpool Council. He lamented 'the grotesque chaos of a Labour council - a Labour council - hiring taxis to scuttle round the city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers'.

2005: A youthful David Cameron became the bookies' favourite to lead the Conservative Party when he spoke without notes for 20 minutes in his key address. Roaming the stage, he attacked the Tory status quo and urged supporters to join him in 'the greatest battle of our lives' against Gordon Brown.

2006: As leadership speculation swirled, Tony Blair's final conference speech brought to a dramatic close the Blair decade. He won a long standing ovation, telling an emotional Labour gathering:' Next year I won't be making this speech. But in the years to come, wherever I am, whatever I do, I'm with you.'

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