PARTY CONFERENCES: The Art of Party Going

Mathew Little

YMCA England and Charter88 are partners in Access All Areas: Connecting Young People With Politics. The project brings young people from all backgrounds into contact with decision-makers at each of the three major party conferences. It is sponsored by Sky.

The Access All Areas soapbox was successfully piloted at the party conferences following concern over the poor turnout of young voters in the last general election, where only 40 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted. This year, Access All Areas is going back to the party conferences with five dedicated fringe events.

Last year, Peter Cuthbertson, 18, who attended the Labour Party Conference, says: "On my first morning, I found myself in the middle of a debate about ID cards with the MP for Tottenham. By the end of the second day, I had seen almost the entire Cabinet, been feet away from the Prime Minister, the German Chancellor and the Mayor of London, and had spoken to the Health Secretary and Education Secretary. I'd recommend this to anyone."

The young people taking part in Access All Areas set the agenda for their presentations, and YMCA and Charter88 provide structured support and training to help develop ideas in the schools and YMCAs.

YMCA says the project has been beneficial in a variety ways apart from achieving the core objective of providing young people with opportunities to express their views to decision-makers.

Richard Capie (pictured far left), YMCA England manager of public affairs, says: "This has led to opportunities to involve young people in political processes including helping hard-to-reach young people to comment on consultation papers and attend legislative discussion forums.

There is also the benefit of meeting MPs and interested agencies in an informal setting at Access All Areas. This has generated information sharing and projects of mutual interest."

YMCA and Charter88 may at first glance appear to be unusual bedfellows.

However, Charter88 seeks to engage people of all ages actively in the political and democratic process and Access All Areas is an operational pairing of complementary expertise.

Karen Bartlett, director of Charter88, explains: "Access All Areas provides a unique forum for young people and policymakers to find out what makes each other tick, and for young people finally to have a voice in the political arena. Young people are turned off by the way we do politics, not by the issues themselves. Politicians visit schools and youth groups and young people sit and listen to them.

We believe that politicians need to listen to young people too.

Political party conferences are ideal occasions for lobbying, but standing behind a stall won't get you noticed. Mathew Little looks at ways in which charities can make their voices heard

For three days in October, an out-of-season holiday resort on the Lancashire coast will host the largest single concentration of opinion-formers and decision-makers in the UK. Government ministers, MPs, MEPS, national newspaper and broadcast journalists, corporate representatives and trade unionists will transform Blackpool's sleepy autumnal gloom with the annual carnival of debate, networking and inebriation known as the Labour Party Conference.

Such a convergence of the powerful and influential in a confined space is a lobbyist's dream, and for many charities and campaigning organisations, the conference season is a vital period in their public affairs calendar.

Voluntary organisations form a significant proportion, if not an outright majority, of the exhibitors at the party conferences despite the recent expansion of the corporate presence in the form of names such as Shell and GlaxoSmithKline.

"Going to the party conferences raises the profile of the organisation and of issues which are not always top of the agenda,

explains Ben Jackson, Shelter's director of external affairs. "It's a chance to contribute to the debate by having ministers on the platform at a fringe meeting. You can also build on your contacts and catch up with existing contacts, get a feel for the political agenda and for what other organisations are saying."

The nature of the party conference has changed in the past decade as the policy-making role has shifted (at least in the case of Labour and the Liberal Democrats) from delegates to media-sensitive cabals around the leader.

In the case of Labour, the stormy policy debates of the past have been so anaesthetised that last year the party had to bus in parties of schoolchildren to ensure the conference hall appeared full to television viewers.

But this does not mean that the conference is a complete stage-managed waste of time for charities. Rather, it shows that the locus of power and influence has moved from inside to outside the conference hall. It means that "organisations have to be more thoughtful about how to effect policy change", according to NCVO's head of campaigns Chris Stalker.

Government ministers are, for example, freed from the routine of gruelling 80-hour weeks, surrounded by civil servants, who normally insulate them from the outside world. Conference activities do not begin until noon so for the morning, ministers or shadow ministers can be corralled for personal, informal meetings. Barnardo's is among the charities that book one-to-one meetings for its chief executive with relevant ministers.

Then there is the fringe which, as formal conference proceedings have become more bland and manufactured, has become the arena for real political debate. A popular and topical fringe meeting can bring an issue to the attention of ministers and the media. According to Stalker, a former campaigner at both Oxfam and Amnesty, a joint fringe meeting organised by Oxfam and the Refugee Council on the issue of vouchers for asylum seekers in 2000 was instrumental in Labour's decision to withdraw them.

"There were key pressure points in the autumn of 2000,

he says. "At the fringe meeting there were speakers from constituency Labour parties and there were individual meetings with ministers. It was a critical time and the conference was a key influencing opportunity."

If a charity wants to hoist an issue up the political and media agenda, then a well-organised fringe meeting with popular speakers can be a simple, cost-effective way of doing it. Beverley Duckworth, head of campaign communications at the World Development Movement, which is organising a fringe debate at the Labour Party Conference this year, says: "A big fringe meeting is a great way to get noticed by people in power. An advertisement in the (Labour) fringe guide costs much less than an ad in The Guardian but you are reaching all kinds of opinion-formers and every political journalist in the UK will see it. You could also get a journalist to chair the debate."

But making an impact at a conference can be expensive, especially if a charity chooses to attend not just the three main party events, but also Plaid Cymru and Scottish National Party gatherings. The price of a well-organised fringe meeting can reach £5,000 - comprising the cost of booking the hotel room, buying the refreshments, placing the ad in the fringe guide and providing expenses for speakers. A stall in the exhibition area at the Labour Party Conference will set a charity back between £3,500 and £8,000, depending on the size and position of the stall.

Lisa Harker, deputy director of think tank IPPR, believes this is not always money well spent, especially if a charity just goes through the motions and does nothing to distinguish itself from the dozens of other voluntary organisations ploughing the same furrow of stalls and fringe meetings.

"Conferences are the networking events of the year,

she says. "But it is questionable whether charities should invest in stalls and fringe meetings.

It is the vogue to do that, but there are so many fringe meetings. Hundreds are happening over three days and it has diluted the event.

"It costs a lot to get a stall and with fringe meetings often half a dozen people turn up and they are not ministers but delegates. Does that really make much of an impact either as public relations or in influencing policy?"

According to Harker, forward-thinking charities are questioning the orthodoxy of the compulsory fringe meeting and investigating alternatives such as private breakfast meetings with government ministers and advisers and evening events such as comedy nights.

Some charities are revising their conference strategy and questioning whether it is necessary to attend all three main party conferences. Shelter, for example, no longer invests in conference stalls.

"Stalls are time-consuming and didn't deliver,

explains Jackson. "They are labour intensive. Staff have to be there the whole time. You need to make the stall attractive and have gimmicks each year to attract people.

There are better ways to reach people. We get more out of fringe meetings and dinners."

Joint fringe meetings are also a way of making sure that charities do not totally saturate the fringe, that costs are shared between them, and that campaigns are synchronised and do not overlap. This year, Barnardo's has joint fringe meetings with Shelter and the Disability Alliance and is holding a joint reception with other children's charities and MPs.

According to NCVO's Chris Stalker, the key to a successful conference season is that charities integrate their conference activities with their ongoing campaign aims and identify one main message they want to promote for the week, such as the Oxfam Fair Trade campaign in 1998 which involved media work, fringe meetings and stalls at all three main party conferences and the TUC. Partner organisations were brought over for meetings and a joint international fringe was organised with Save the Children. Conference campaigns should also be followed up with the media and in Parliament.

"Conferences work, but not in isolation,

he says.

SOME DOS AND DON'TS AT PARTY CONFERENCES

NCVO recommends the following DOs and DON'Ts for anybody wanting to make a good impression at the party conferences.

DO

- Identify what you want to achieve from attendance at party conferences - Set clear objectives or success criteria around what you want to achieve as outcomes from conferences

- Aim to integrate party conference activity into a wider, strategic plan that contributes to organisational and/or campaign objectives

- Identify one clear message that is used throughout the conference at fringe meetings, exhibition halls, and when engaging with delegates.

Identify one person to manage and be responsible for your conference presence all week, ensuring continuity of message

- Build strategic alliances with other organisations which have the same objectives as yourself to share platforms with at fringe meetings

- Always maximise any opportunities that arise where you can network with MPs, MEPs, journalists, trade unions, private sector representatives, and any other relevant organisations

- During conferences, be flexible and responsive in order to take advantage of opportunities with MPs, delegates and the media to promote your key messages

DON'T

- Plan to just go through the motions at party conferences. Consider missing them for one or two years in order to maximise your impact in the pre-election conference season

- View party conferences as an ad-hoc activity, separate from the ongoing organisational programme or campaign

- Deliver many, varied confusing messages during the conference season

- Get so drunk you embarrass yourself

- Be rigid and inflexible

CASE STUDY - THE YMCA AND CHARTER88 CONNECT YOUNG PEOPLE WITH POLITICS

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