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What’s the point of party conferences?

How they work and what happens at them.

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.

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.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Nick Timothy’s defence of Theresa May raises more questions than it answers

It would be better for May’s reputation if she had known about those vans.

Nick Timothy makes an eyebrow-raising claim in his Telegraph column today: that Theresa May opposed the notorious “Go Home” vans that trundled through diverse parts of the country advising illegal immigrants to leave the country – actually claiming she went as far as to block them – but the scheme was “revived and approved” in a press plan while she was on holiday.

Some people are assuming that this story is flatly untrue, and not without good reason. The Times’ Henry Zeffman has dug out a written answer from Amber Rudd saying that while Mark Harper, a junior Home Office minister, approved the vans, he informed May of the scheme ahead of time. The timeframe also stretches credulity somewhat. This is the same government department that having decided to destroy the landing cards of Windrush Britons in June 2009, still had yet to locate a shredder by October 2010. Whitehall takes years to approve advertising campaigns and even the process of hiring a van is not simple: so it stretches credulity a tad to imagine that the Home Office would sign off a poster, hire a van and a driver, all without it either coming across the desk of the Home Secretary or her special advisor. That no official faced dismissal as a result stretches it further still.

However, it is worth noting that Mark Harper, the minister who approved the vans, was the only serving minister to have worked with May at the Home Office who did not continue on in government when she became Prime Minister – instead, she sacked him from his post. The Home Office acting off its own bat would support the belief, not uncommon among civil servants at other Whitehall departments, that Britain’s interior ministry is out of control: that it regularly goes further than its ministerial mandate and that it has an institutional dislike of the people it deals with day to day. So while it seems unlikely that the vans reached the streets without May or her advisors knowing, it is not impossible.

However, that raises more questions than it answers. If you take the Timothy version of events as true, that means that May knew the following things about the Home Office: that they were willing to not only hide the facts from ministers but to actively push ahead with policy proposals that the Secretary of State had dropped. Despite knowing that, she championed a vast increase in the powers and scope of the Home Office in the 2014 Immigration Act and at the peak of her powers in 2016 did the same as Prime Minister. She made no effort to address this troubling culture for the remaining three years she served as Home Secretary, and promoted three of her juniors, none of whom appear to have done anything to address it either, to big jobs across the government. It means that she had little grip over her department an no inclination to assert it. (Indeed, this is why the Secretary of State is held responsible even for decisions that they don’t sign off – as otherwise you have no democratic accountability at all.)

If those vans were sprung on May and her political team, that is even more troubling than the idea that they approved them.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.