OPINION: Ready for the conference trek

LISA HARKER, deputy director of the Institute for Public Policy Research

The room is booked. The canapes and wine have been ordered. Fingers crossed the minister will show. We are just weeks away from the party conference season.

One of the most prominent events in the political calendar has become an irresistible fixture for many charities. As members get down to the business of debating their party's agenda, a whole policy carnival takes place within a mile radius of the conference hall. From dawn 'til dusk, organisations host breakfast meetings, fringe meetings and evening receptions to draw attention to their cause.

Some organisations blow almost their entire public affairs budget on funding a stand and a series of events at each of the party conferences.

A few take such a gamble in the mistaken belief that fringe meetings can have an impact on policy making. But even those who know that party conference events can be little more than awareness-raising exercises are increasingly finding themselves disappointed.

Such has been the proliferation of party conference fringe meetings in the past 10 years that there are now too few delegates (and politicians) to go round. Even at the Liberal Democrat and Conservative party conferences - where the competition is less intense - it can be hard to muster more than the proverbial three men and a dog. Debates echo round half-empty hotel rooms and, if you are fortunate enough to have your meeting graced by the presence of a prominent politician, you can be assured that he or she has another engagement within the next half hour.

Many charitable organisations appear wedded to a belief that attending all three of the main party conferences is the best way to demonstrate independence from any political party.

But the time must have come to rethink the fringe activities that surround the conferences. As you prepare for this year's gruelling trek from Brighton to Bournemouth via Blackpool, it's worth reflecting on whether there might be a better way to make the most of this important event in the political calendar.

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