In this increasingly digital age, where every big speech is instantly available online, hundreds of bloggers, party members and journalists write about the goings on at Conference, and anyone armed with a social media app can become a quasi-journalist, the question regularly arises, “why go?”
The truth is that the value of Conference has seldom been in the big speeches or the fleeting opportunity to corner a Minister. (Though there is always the chance that you will find yourself seated next to Jeremy Hunt on a 3-hour train journey back to London, as happened once to a pharmaceutical client of ours). In fact, the real action for the majority of delegates happens ‘off-pitch’, away from the cameras and TV screens.
The Conference programme itself is an intimidating mix of speeches, debates, drinks receptions and even running clubs – for those who want to kick-start their networking with a 7.30am jog. Amidst all this, the uninitiated often find they wander in a daze from one event to another, hearing a lot but learning little.
In this context it is important to understand exactly what can be achieved and prepare accordingly. With so many big players at conference, all of whom have come prepared with refined messages, a quick stroll around the exhibition hall and a few brief exchanges can give a better idea of the thinking at influential organisations than hours of desk research. Again this year, there is a real push from the health sector to have a presence at Conservative Conference in an effort to drive and inform the debate. Our clients use this time to share news about their work too and to seek out mutual collaborations. It’s practically speed dating.
Then there is my favourite part; the political intelligence gathering. Ministers and important committee or cross-party group chairpersons often speak at many fringe events, and this offers arguably one of the best insights into their personalities and their perspective. Perhaps the overwhelming presence of party banners and the party faithful cannot help but foster a sense of camaraderie, of being amongst friends, and helps to put speakers at ease. There is also no vetting of the audience or the questions, and though some might be wildly off topic, this is where the real conference gold dust can be found, as key figures become slightly more loose-tongued or frank.
Interpreting what a politician is actually saying from the minutest of policy hints or interaction with others requires a good level of knowledge of the person as well as what policies are already in the public domain. Armed with this information, there are opportunities to identify important areas of potential support, or hitherto unknown risks and obstacles.
The chance to ask questions can be of much use too, particularly of someone whom you might never have secured a meeting with. You may not get a definitive answer, but whether it’s a quote, a foot in the door for a meeting, a point made on record, or just finding that one other person in the audience who shares your agenda, you will be presented with opportunities that with the right preparation or experience, you can seize.
Since the election all parties have had major reshuffles, and Conference is the first real outing for a lot of the new senior team. With so many newly promoted MPs with unknown qualities, styles and preferences, this is a real opportunity for politically savvy organisations to add some vital colour to the emerging picture.
The value of our analysis after Conference is not only found in unpicking the big televised speeches and policy announcements – copious columnists do that for you. It is turning the noise from hundreds of fringe debates into a coherent policy narrative; pulling out the character of a key Minister from a seemingly innocuous comment; and tying together the views of different charity sector bodies and industry groups to form the whole tapestry of the external environment in which the government operates. It can be exhausting and infuriating but usually well worth the effort.
Claudia Rubin is a Senior Consultant at Decideum, a specialist agency with over 20 years of government and regulatory expertise.