Analysis: Lobbyists set for conference season

With the political party conference season approaching, companies and organisations are preparing for the busiest time of the lobbyist's calendar. Andy Allen reports on their work

While much of the reporting of the upcoming party season is sure to be dominated by Iraq, behind the scenes, the usual round of lobbying and networking will take place. And as in previous years, the bulk of lobbying action will happen on the fringe and in the hotel bars.

The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (2001) has made it a requirement to disclose any party donation worth over £5,000. The ability of the media to pick over donor lists and compare them with upcoming legislation - intimating sleaze where it may not exist - has forced many firms to rethink plans. Formula 1's Bernie Ecclestone and steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal - who took a lot of flack for being a party donor just before he benefitted from government lobbying on his business's behalf - cast a shadow over the party's fundraising activities.

Equally, according to one seasoned PA adviser, the return on setting out a stall at the main conference is increasingly poor. He believes that since companies started to gravitate towards conferences in the late 1980s, the demands on politicians' time have become such that it is much harder to bend the ear of the influential.

Yet while some PA specialists talk of year-round strategic communications it is only the brave and the foolhardy that cross the conference out from their diary. Corporations, NGOs, and trade associations continue to see the conferences as a key policy-making forum and a chance to make their message heard.

Campaigning group Britain in Europe, for example, says the conferences are a chance to influence opinion-formers as decision time draws near.

Media boss Adrian McMenamin says he expects the euro to be the second most important item on the agenda after Iraq. For the pro-euro camp this conference - probably the last before chancellor Gordon Brown makes his assessment of the economic tests necessary before adoption of the currency - will be crucial. The group has six cabinet ministers speaking at its meeting on the conference fringe, a reflection of its rising importance.

Aside from that, receptions will be held at all three conferences with different messages for each according to its position on the euro.

Other bodies are also putting the finishing touches to their PA strategies as conference month approaches. The Energy Savings Trust has a raft of messages to get across, including its conviction that energy problems can be met by increases in energy efficiency and setting targets for efficiency and renewable energy. PA manager Neil Wallis says receptions will take place at all conferences in association with party environmental groups such as the Tory Green Initiative.

The Labour conference will also be marked with a debate on achieving a low-carbon economy, held in association with the Fabian Society and a Labour environmentalists question time, chaired by Joan Ruddock, and attended by minister Michael Meacher.

At regulators and professional bodies, too, preparations are being made.

The General Medical Council is focusing on forthcoming legislation on dealing with complaints against doctors. GMC public affairs manager Matt Ball says the group will host meetings with all parties to discuss health issues. GMC president Sir Graeme Catto, approaching his first conference season in post, will hold dinners with Labour and the Lib Dems - his diary apparently doesn't permit a meeting with Tories.

In part due to the new regulations on sponsorship, the Labour conference is looking short on sponsors this year. Confirmed backers include Bloomberg, the BBC and Manchester Airport. A raft of possible opportunities - from the wine and flowers at the gala dinner to the various regional receptions - are without backers just two weeks before conference starts.

But compared to the efforts of NGOs, corporate lobbying is discreet and most companies claim it is based around community work. MacDonalds, for example, is sponsoring a football reception at all three conferences with the FA as part of its official partnership with football's governing body to create 8,000 new coaches in the UK. Media relations manager Amanda Pierce describes the receptions as simply an opportunity to meet 'partners in the community'.

Powergen's presence is equally low-key, according to external affairs manager Isobel Hoseason. She describes conferences as an opportunity to take part in the policy discussion, meet stakeholders and work with partner organisations. In previous years events have taken place with charities such as Age Concern. This year the company teams up with National Energy Action and Energywatch - to 'highlight work our organisations are doing in meeting the needs of vulnerable customers'.

And in any case those engaged in open old-fashioned lobbying may not have it all their own way. GuardianUnlimited, along with the GMB union, has set up a website dedicated to exposing firms who are using the Government's private finance initiative to make profits from services which used to be provided by the public sector. The 'Who are the real wreckers?' site will run throughout the conference season alongside a conference news text alert service. You have been warned.

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