Political PR: Conference Eyewitness

On the eve of the last Labour Party Conference before the general election, the Sunday Times political editor asks: has the event lost its buzz?

Across the hall you can hear a crowd of people singing what sounds like Robbie Williams' Angels in the piano bar, while a senior government adviser takes his place at the keyboard.

You know the feeling: it is 2.30am, you are more than a little tired, you are struggling to stay on your feet and concentrate on what the person you are talking to is saying or even remember their name. Your pockets are stuffed with business cards and your head with a hundred conversations you had during the day.

Welcome to party conference season. Long gone are those languorous August afternoons when you could feast on a long lunch outside at a cosy London eaterie. Now it's all walking through blustery rain, and dodgy seaside cuisine.

But we love it- or at least pretend to. After going to these things for more than a decade now, I have to confess they are a bit of a chore. But I think most lobby hacks, ministers, special advisers, PROs and public affairs consultants still get a buzz out of them.

They do, of course, mark the official beginning of term, despite the Commons now returning for a quick couple of weeks in September. Especially when this year marks the start of what is effectively an eight-month general election campaign.

Conferences are a sketch writer's dream - they can never resist the associations with pantomime, fading D-list celebrities and the general 'kiss me quick', saucy-postcard association with the seaside. And it is true that going to these resorts does bring out the amateur dramatics. There have been some classic comedy moments: Neil Kinnock falling into the sea during a photo opportunity on the beach, Michael Heseltine's platform antics about 'it's not Brown, it's Balls', a 16-year-old William Hague's first steps in politics,Tony Blair's sweat-soaked shirt and John Prescott's bad gags.

There have been moving moments too, such as Nelson Mandela's speech to the Labour Party Conference in 2000. And some truly great speeches and political turning points, such as Prescott's Clause 4 oration, Kinnock's attack on Militant, Blair's 'forces of conservatism' speech and Margaret Thatcher's 'the lady's not for turning'.

Surreal quality

There is a surreal quality to them which, perhaps, you wouldn't get if the conferences were held at aircraft-hanger-style exhibition centres.

They were originally held by the seaside so that MPs could combine a bit of business with a holiday for their family.

Everyone is cooped up together for four or five days, staying in the same hotels, bumping into each other several times within the space of a few hours.

In the case of Labour's conference now, there is literally a secure village of not more than a few acres, in which the two main hotels and conference centre are enclosed.

A special bridge between the hotels, costing £400,000, has to be constructed to avoid delegates having to go outside the enclosure.

But what about behind the scenes? Well, that hasn't changed much. The bars are still where the business and gossip gets done, while the press room is where the comms teams get to work.

Take the Clause 4 issue during Blair's first party conference speech as leader ten years ago. His communications team infamously left out the last three pages of the speech - revealing the plans to rewrite Clause 4 - from the advance copies handed out to journalists. This meant the journalists were on the backfoot late in the day, they didn't have as much time to think about it and were, therefore, more likely to take Alastair Campbell's line that this was a bold and necessary measure.

Gordon Brown's camp has also had its moments. In Brighton 2001, the Chancellor wanted to signal that taxes would rise in the following spring's budget, but not a word of it was in his speech. Instead, it was left to an anonymous briefing by Ed Balls.

The Tories are just as guilty. John Major's 'back to basics' call at Blackpool in 1993 might have remained a simple call for a return to the values of neighbourliness and courtesy, had it not been conveyed as a 'war on permissiveness' by his then adviser Tim Collins.

There is little doubt that there just isn't the old feeling of history and tension ahead of this year's party conferences.

Although they should be exciting this year with the general election coming up, and the inevitable renewed tension over Iraq and Blair/ Brown relations, public affairs consultants report that their clients just aren't as bothered. And who can blame them? It now costs about £700 for a business ticket for the week.

As for the Tories in Bournemouth, PA consultants say it's probably slightly easier to get clients to go to the Lib Dems conference - a very bad sign for Michael Howard.

'The Labour conference is not as important as it was back in 1997, although it is still good for catching up with people and what's happening in the party,' says Four Communications head of public affairs Jeremy Fraser.

'Clients don't foresee any change of government, so it's difficult to get them interested in going to the Tories. But there's been a slight pick-up in the Lib Dems.'

Meet and greet

Politics Direct director and co-founder John Arnold agrees. 'Everyone knows what Labour is all about now, but the conference is an opportunity to meet people in an off-duty and informal setting, where relationships can be made and built up.'

It's certainly a long way now from the bloody, smoky conferences at the Winter Gardens when Labour and 'the brothers' would spend hours thrashing out composites and amendments to motions.

The Labour conference is no longer a policy-making arena - in fact, it now has separate 'national policy forums' all-year round to do that instead. They are far more stage-managed events than they used to be.

Labour delegates often complain about being strong-armed to vote one way or another.

Even Blair appears to agree that the conference isn't what is used to be. 'I haven't even started on my speech, which I usually do on holiday,' he confided to journalists when he returned to Number Ten at the beginning of this month. I'm not sure I believe him, but the inevitability of Labour's third successive election victory certainly makes his speech less crucial than in previous years. Me? I'll be trying to get to bed a lot earlier this year.

ON THE FRINGE

Party conferences aren't just about the conference itself - fringe events are equally important in building relationships and sharing news.

This year, several public affairs agencies are holding the following events for clients or the media:

- Bell Pottinger Public Affairs The agency is holding a drinks party for both clients and MPs at the Grand Hotel on the Monday. All Labour MPs are invited.

- Fishburn Hedges The agency has set up both one-to-one meetings with ministers in addition to hosting fringe meetings on specific issues. Its public affairs division is also holding evening receptions at conference hotels.

- Connect Public Affairs The agency is hosting a reception celebrating the diversity of Britain. A selection of black and ethnic minority bands will be performing during the evening reception at the main conference hotel. Furthermore, Connect is hosting a concert by the Youth Jazz Orchestra at the Hilton West Pier on the last night of the conference.

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