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23 September 2017

What’s the point of party conferences?

How they work and what happens at them.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Party conferences are often referred to as the Glastonbury of the political calendar. Sad though it sounds, there is some truth in it. A lot of people go, and they’re very messy. (Plus, to many Westminster types, they’re an exciting social occasion – and far away on the train.)

Every UK party has an annual autumn conference, where their members and politicians go to discuss the state of the party and its future. Each one works slightly differently, but all are covered by the media and result in policy announcements (and, with any luck, massive rows).

But what actually happens at these dry looking events in wet seaside towns, and why should you care?

Location

Historically, party conferences have been held in seaside towns – for cheap accommodation. While Brighton and Bournemouth are still part of the circuit, big cities like Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool and Glasgow are the main hosts. They’re not in London because, well, every other political event is in London and party conferences are ostensibly for party members to get a chance to meet and listen to their politicians unfiltered by the press.

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This leads to enjoyable scenarios, like Conservative party conference clashing with Birmingham uni freshers’ week, when you see 18-year-olds in torn Carnage t-shirts and old bald men in lanyards in equal measure queuing up for the same clubnights.

Delegates

Party conference delegates are ordinary party members who pay to attend. They receive a pass and access to all the speeches by politicians in the main auditorium, as well as the conference fringe (see below). Delegates get to vote on policy motions they put forward in most parties’ conferences – apart from at Tory and Ukip conference, where they mainly bray or boo to register their mood.

Labour, Tory, Lib Dem and SNP conferences last for longer than a weekend, so many working party members have to take days off to attend the full conference programme. Green and Ukip party conferences are usually over a weekend.

Lobbyists

Lobbyists – ie. everyone with an agenda from the European Azerbaijan Society to the Campaign for Real Ale – send their public affairs teams to most party conferences, in the hope that their stands in the exhibition space (see below) or drinks receptions, dinners and panels that they put on will influence policy-makers.

Journalists

Journalists descend on party conferences to cover everything that happens on stage and behind-the-scenes. They all get conference flu.

Speeches

Most of a party’s key players get to make a speech in the main auditorium. This is good for the members, because they are given the chance to see their beloved politicians speak in the flesh, rather than through a TV clip or print interviews. It’s also good for the politicians, because if they have career aspirations, these are the people who will be voting for them in leadership contests to come.

The conference stage can also be a place where rising stars are born. In 1977, a 16-year-old William Hague famously spoke at Conservative party conference, and was touted as one-to-watch from then on.

Motions

Delegates at all party conferences but Tory and Ukip get the chance to put motions forward, and vote on policy decisions and rule changes. It works differently at different conferences, but for Labour, delegates get to vote on motions proposed by constituency parties and unions, and policy proposals formulated by the party’s National Policy Forum.

Exhibition space

A big echoey room full of stalls and stands set up by all the interest groups attending conference. Similar from conference to conference, except Labour has unions where the Tories have tweed merchants (no, really).

All the free stress balls and biros a girl could ask for. But at what cost?

Fringes

The conference fringe is a schedule of panels, debates, speeches, drinks receptions and parties that are not part of the official conference agenda. They are organised by various interest groups and publications. These are mainly significant for allowing outspoken MPs a chance to air their views, and exhausted journalists and delegates to have a sandwich.

Some are within the secure zone – the closed-off party conference area only accessible to those with a pass – and some are scattered around the city or town where party conference is taking place.

Momentum now has its own big fringe in the same city and on the same dates as Labour conference called The World Transformed. This will be its second year.

Parties

Conference is a little like freshers’ week but with old men. Everyone’s rushing their work and going to as many drinks events and meeting as many people as possible. There are parties – some more exclusive than others – that happen within and without the secure zone, which are also a big source of news and hangovers for the journalists who prowl the circuit. Ed Balls can often be seen dancing, which, for some reason, everyone still thinks is hilarious.