Brian Lamb: For charities, the party conferences have now outlived their usefulness

Party conferences are no longer opportunities to catch ministers outside Westminster without the protective coating of civil servants, says our columnist

Brian Lamb
Brian Lamb

The party conference season is barely over, yet many charities will have already booked their places to attend next year's events. Is this a mistake? When there are 350 other days each year for lobbying, what makes these conferences so special?

Party conferences are touted as one of the few opportunities to catch ministers outside Westminster without the protective coating of civil servants. But this is becoming less true. Politicians are being lobbied by more people than ever before, so they come flanked with advisers and civil servants who are adept at putting out any fires you start by the time the ministers are back in Whitehall.

Many campaigning groups scaled back their involvement in party conferences long before it became astronomically expensive to exhibit and mount fringe events, or they have merged into larger groups, such as the much-imitated Health Hotel, a consortium that represents health and social care organisations.

Speaking to the converted

Sometimes it is possible for charities to make a splash with a well-timed insurgent campaign; sometimes they are able to renew relationships or benefit from a chance encounter. But many worthy causes spend time and money doing nothing more than speaking to the converted. The number of people attending their events is padded out by supporters from similar organisations alongside - if you are lucky - a scattering of conference delegates.

Politicians are on the tightest of schedules. They cram in as many events as they can and fit multiple fringe speeches into their over-packed schedules. There are still some serious policy debates, but the think tanks tend to wield the clout in attracting frontbench spokespeople.

And whisper it quietly, but many MPs do not attend conferences. Ministers swoop in for their set-piece speeches and occasional fringe meetings and disappear again, while the leadership looks for the occasional eye-catching policy announcement for the public and press. Rarely are major issues or changes presaged outside of the leaders' set pieces aimed at the media.

Smart organisations now send one or two staff to sit in meetings, gather intelligence and garner profile by asking questions at other organisations' fringe events. Being part of the pack in hotel lobbies has little effect. Hosting short meetings can have as much impact as hosting stands and fringe events. Loaning chief executives and spokespeople out to others is a much sharper way of retaining profile and getting your message across.

Big pitch

For some organisations, conferences might be the only opportunity to present a big pitch to ministers. No doubt many have stories to tell of the advances they have made. For many, however, they are like that holiday that did not turn out well - embellished in a haze of nostalgia.

No wonder more organisations are beginning to conclude that the party conferences are no longer a case of "wish you were here" but "get me out of here". Even Jon McLeod, the public affairs chairman of the PR company Weber Shandwick, said recently that the money spent on these events could be better used elsewhere. When the lobby companies are saying it's time to call time on conferences, then perhaps the voluntary sector should take note.

Brian Lamb is a consultant and chair of the NCVO's campaign effectiveness advisory board

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