Party conference was PR jamboree

At a fringe meeting I chaired at the Conservative Party conference this week, I took time out when one of the MPs on the panel was holding forth to see how many people in the audience I recognised.

PR executives, think-tanks and charities are abundant. Only business people and party members are thin on the ground
PR executives, think-tanks and charities are abundant. Only business people and party members are thin on the ground

The tally was quite high - because they all worked in PR. But I did not see any big-hitting business figures, other than those from the company sponsoring the event - and even they were not the top people. Nor were many MPs there to listen rather than speak.

It made me wonder what was the point of an event organised by the PR team of a think-tank where the audience comprised mainly other PR professionals.

This was not only a problem for the Conservatives; it was much the same story for the Liberal Democrats in Brighton and Labour in Birmingham.

If you analyse the delegates at party conferences, there are PR executives, think-tanks and charities in abundance, as well as a raft of trade associations. Only business people are thin on the ground.

The other endangered species is the grassroots party member for whom the event was staged, and who is still supposed to be the centre of attention. They are easy to spot, as they are 20 years older than most people. They also mill around the conference hall, as they tend to avoid the bars because they are not on expense accounts. Indeed, that is an issue.

Off-season accommodation in Blackpool, Scarborough or Bournemouth was affordable. Spending a week in Manchester or Birmingham isn't. Accreditation can also be expensive. Two people could spend less on a fortnight in Spain, so you have to be committed.

All this raises the question of how long these annual extravaganzas can continue in their current form. Business people don't go because they say they can get access to ministers and MPs in London more or less when they want. Conferences rarely if ever influence policy, so there is not much meat for the party members. The fringe meetings are ignored by the MPs they are meant to influence. The media are now interested only in the party leader's speech or the odd bit of scandal. It is a circus without an audience.

Anthony Hilton is City commentator on London's Evening Standard

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