There are three compelling reasons to attend party conferences - but they don't include lobbying

The definition of insanity, according to Albert Einstein, is to keep doing the same thing over and over again, yet expecting different results.

John Lehal: Diminishing returns on investment in party conferences
John Lehal: Diminishing returns on investment in party conferences

Public affairs practitioners don't need Einstein to tell them that they have had a diminishing return on their investment at party conferences in recent years. 

Yet many organisations will have returned from three weeks on the road convincing themselves they have had a good conference season.

Party conferences have historically been an annual gathering enabling the party leadership and staff to spend quality time with the party faithful and activists. The parties command unrivalled media coverage for a week, while in a bid to avoid any negative coverage have shifted any real debate to private policy seminars.

During the past 20 years, charities, firms, trade associations and campaign groups have turned out in force, competing for the attention of ministers, shadow ministers and MPs. Party conferences have come to resemble a public affairs trade show, rather than annual meetings of political movements.

The expansive and expensive exhibition stands, breakfast meetings, private policy seminars, one-to-ones over coffee, fringe meetings and late nights in the bar have made the conferences a lobbyist's paradise.

But lobbyists are more likely to bump into a constituency delegate than see any evidence of securing policy change - and this is the fundamental issue for me. Public affairs practitioners, be they in-house, freelance or in consultancy, have to be focused on securing policy change.

Ministers are so fearful of upsetting the leadership through off-the-cuff comments that they don't turn up in listening mode, but rather explain and defend policy. So why should public affairs practitioners have gone to the main party conferences, the last of which concluded last week?

To listen: as we near the election, the party leadership spells out macro policy direction of travel; the big political beasts set out their personal narrative at major events on the fringe; and frontbenchers provide an insight into their thinking. People should turn up, absorb and use this to frame engagement in Westminster and Whitehall.

To hijack: if a campaign group, competitor or trade association is willing to invest a lot of money in fringe events and think-tank policy seminars, then it is worth turning up and speaking from the floor.

You will make your point and it won't have cost more than the price of your rail fare and conference pass.

To network: bump into ministers; catch up with parliamentary advocates; have an end-of-day drink with your mates in the media; and grab a bite with stakeholders, with whom it would normally take you weeks to arrange.

A must to avoid doing at the party conferences is lobbying. Ministers and shadow ministers are interested in using their limited time to engage with the media, parliamentary colleagues and their constituency activists. In 2014, it will be even more tempting to take the trade association director-general, the company MD and the charity CEO to the final conferences before the election. Unless it passes one of the three tests above, I would advise against.

John Lehal is managing director of Insight Public Affairs

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