OPINION: It's party animal feeding time

Lisa Harker, chair of the Daycare Trust

I once spent a dismal week during the Labour Party Conference sitting in a London television studio name-checking the politicians who one by one stepped up to the podium.

It wasn't the highlight of my BBC career. And the tedium of the task was made worse because I knew I was missing out on what was happening outside the conference hall.

It is difficult to describe the party conference experience to someone who has never been. For a start, it is nothing like you see on TV. As a non-party delegate you may not set foot inside the main conference hall.

So if you want to keep track of what is happening, you are better off staying at home in front of the telly.

Yet for the thousands of voluntary sector delegates who flock to Britain's seaside resorts for conference season each year, what matters is what happens outside the main hall: the fringe meetings, receptions and the parties.

Even then, it's hard to explain the attraction. You spend the best part of three weeks away from home, traipsing up and down the seafronts of Britain's old-fashioned coastal towns, living on a diet of sandwiches and warm white wine, and getting very little sleep. And for what?

You are certainly kidding yourself if you think that fringe meetings make an impact on policy-making. And no one would convincingly argue that hosting a drinks reception at party conference helps to change the world.

Even hiring an exhibition stand, an opportunity to promote your cause to delegates as they pass through the conference centre, has become a pretty expensive.

Yet for the seasoned campaigner the party conference season can't be missed. Why? Because everyone else is there.

The party conferences are an unparalleled opportunity to network with other voluntary organisations, journalists, think-tank researchers and, occasionally, politicians and party delegates. And, particularly for small voluntary organisations, a ticket to Blackpool, Bournemouth or Brighton can be the most cost-effective way to get to know who's who and get your face known. Just don't pretend you are there to make a difference.

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