Party conferences are not always hot tickets for lobbyists

Alex Bigg argues that this week’s Liberal Democrat conference poses a conundrum for the public affairs industry.

Campbell: facing test of leadership this week
Campbell: facing test of leadership this week

This week, the Westminster Village started packing its bags in ­preparation for three weeks of over-priced hotel rooms, limp sandwiches, dodgy wine, hangovers, and coming face-to-face with the weird and wonderful crowd party conferences tend to attract.

First stop was Brighton for the Liberal Democrat conference. Ming Campbell has so far done his best to silence the doubters who whisper that he is not up to the job. At the time of writing, he is limbering up for a conference speech that will determine the way forward for his leadership and the party.

But what impact do conferences have on public ­affairs, and should consultancies be advising clients to brave five days in a hotel room in Brighton, Bournemouth or Blackpool?

Apart from filling the coffers of hard-up political parties, what is the point of ­attending party conferences from a commercial and corporate standpoint?

It could be argued that conferences have become too big and too corporate to make attending them worthwhile. Last year’s ­Labour Party conference, for example, attracted around 20,000 delegates and assorted hangers on.

Conversely, there are still PROs who will try to convince their clients of the merits of a brief meeting in a crowded hotel lobby with a politician who will not disguise the fact that he or she would rather be elsewhere. Other PROs will tell clients that sponsoring fringe events is a worthwhile activity for promoting their companies, although the only person likely to attend (aside from other consultants) will be the delegate from Dartford.

This week’s Lib Dem ­conference is the ultimate conundrum. On the one hand, it is a relaxed affair where senior party leaders are easily accessible. On the other, outside of localgovernment, the party’s influence is limited.

Attending party conferences can be the right thing to do, providing your ambitions are realistic.

They offer the chance to bump into people it might otherwise have taken weeks to organise meetings with. They are also ideal places to rekindle old relationships, and perhaps even earn some name recognition.  They also provide an opportunity to gauge the mood of the party on issues of concern.

However, as an industry we need to be braver about telling our clients that party conferences should not necessarily be perennial fixtures in their calendars, and that they are certainly not places where they can hope to set the agenda.

Alex Bigg (l) is managing director of Edelman Public Affairs

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