Party Conferences are a unique occasion in the political calendar when Cabinet Ministers, the nation’s key media commentators, interest groups, charities, business organisations and political activists all come together in one place.
The first sign that this conference is different from others you may attend is the mass of leafleters and campaigners who all line the approach to the entrances. Some are passionate individuals wanting to champion their cause, but many are paid employees of public relations companies looking to tempt delegates to attend events discussing a particular issue, with this year an inflatable elephant providing the backdrop.
The second is the ring of security that sadly has to surround the event. There are older members in the bay who can recall the times in the 1960’s when you could just walk in and out, with virtually all events open and easily accessible. The Brighton Bomb changed it all. Now the airport style security cordon creates an effective island of intense political activity as the world walks by on the outside.
For those who have never been to a conference there is a unique social atmosphere, you can always start a conversation with a complete stranger as you know they will have a shared interest, politics. Every year I meet up with people I see at conferences for a chat, swap tips or to discuss issues relevant to my area. For me this has varied from talking with the International Director of Angela Merkel’s CDU Party to a catch up with our local Conservative MEPs.
The Main Conference Hall is what is relayed in the media, yet the Conference Fringe is an amazing barrage of events that take place around the set piece speeches. If you can think of it as an issue someone is holding a discussion, putting on a reception, launch a policy document or holding a Q & A about it. Just take Monday 30th September. At 5:30pm, 25 separate events started at that time covering issues ranging from Unlocking Mutuals: New Capital Investment for Growth to the Launch of the Remote Warfare Policy Commission. Another 15 started at 7:30pm, with the Royal British Legion Reception being my pick of them all.
Then there is the exhibition hall with stands that are full of organisations promoting a particular issue, bit like a wedding fair, but with a choice of policies rather than dresses on offer.
As a candidate you get plenty of invites as groups look to find out what views those standing for parliament have. I apply a clear filter to those I meet. Yes to meeting IFAW about Wildlife Crime, a firm No to meeting the Tobacco Manufacturer’s Association. I also found a bit of time to join the Chief Whip packing a box for a Charity Gardening group, plus calling back to the bay for views after the Chancellor’s speech.
Some question whether conferences still serve a purpose in an age when 24 hour media provokes a constant, not once a year, debate about the issues. Perhaps in the future we may see some conference debates take place via on line platforms. Yet for me there can be no replacement for the type of focussed activity the annual gathering brings, hence why the Conference Season will be with us for many years to come.