Labour Party conference in Brighton

Reflections On The Party Conferences

By Stuart Thomson, Head of Public Affairs at BDB Pitmans

With the Labour and Conservative Party conferences having ended, it is worth reflecting on what they now mean and the value they have in public affairs.  There is no doubt that the conferences have changed. 

This year we were able to return to in-person conferences for Labour and the Conservatives whilst the Lib Dems and SNP have remained virtual.  Whilst some were a little reticent, on the whole people were genuinely happy to be seeing each other again face-to-face and there was little evidence of a covid hangover (whilst alcohol ones were more common). 

Organisations rightly consider year on year whether attendance at the party conferences represents good value for money and there is no doubt that the Conservative conference was busier than that of Labours.  This is probably to be expected mid-way through Parliament, but organisations always need to think about showing their political balance (especially so in the case of charities). 

So, thinking particularly about public affairs I had a few reflections on this year’s conferences. 

  1. The Conservative conference is no longer a conference, it is a political trade show – no one has ever pretended that Conservative members have a role in making policy for the party.  But, in the past, the members could contribute to discussions.  That has now been removed.  It is all about set-piece speeches / Q&As, the fringe and the exhibition. 
  2. Brands dominate the fringe – the fringe events that got the punters in were largely organised by the names that people know (New Statesman, The Spectator, IEA, Con Home etc) and focused on issues related directly to key political issues – mostly levelling up and Net Zero.  Other events generally had lower numbers of attendees but those really interested in the topic.  In other words, the more specialist fringes got the right people in. 
  3. MPs were less in attendance – on the face of it that could be a problem but if it opens space for other parts of the party to get involved and attend then that could suit your public affairs agenda perfectly. 
  4. Can we meet in London?  A further consequence of MPs not attending, or those attending being really pushed for time, is that meetings take place in London not in Manchester or Brighton.  Again, that potentially opens time to meet with other types of audiences and weens us off an obsession with Westminster politicians. 
  5. It’s about the relationship – party conference activity is also about building relationships over the longer term.  It can also play into other important considerations such as helping to identify ‘rising stars’ in any party as well. 

I believe that attendance at the party conferences retains real value.  It is the only time when you get a feel for the party itself, not just the public messages that are delivered.  The ability to network, gain insight and see what others are doing as well is not something that can happen elsewhere. 

Time to book the accommodation for next year’s conferences…. 


Photo by Socialist Appeal on Flickr

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Stuart is a public affairs and communications specialist with BDB Pitmans advising clients on all elements of their public affairs strategies including political and corporate communications and reputation management. His work also includes consultation and planning communications and he has advised on a number of high profile media relations and crisis communications programmes. Stuart is an honorary research fellow at the University of Aberdeen and is the author of several books including ‘New Activism and the Corporate Response‘ (heralded as a book that “every aspiring business leader should read” by MIS Asia), ‘Public Affairs in Practice’ and ‘The Dictionary of Labour Quotations‘. His most recently published book, ‘Public Affairs: A Global Perspective’ has been called ‘an absolute treasure-trove’ and is a recommended read by the Government Communication Service (GCS). Stuart regularly writes and lectures on a range of business and political issues and as well as blogging for BDB Pitmans he contributes to the Huffington Post and has written for the CBI, (former) UKTI, Total Politics and LabourList. He is also an adviser to the Entrepreneurs Network (TEN) and a regular speaker and chair at conferences. He has appeared on Sky News, BBC 5 Live, BBC World, the Today programme and on Ukrainian TV and has been a judge for the Public Affairs News, PR Week, Public Affairs and the European Public Affairs awards. Stuart is a CIPR trainer leading the 'Practical Public Affairs' course.

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