Politics Special: The Conference Season - Charities are back in the party mood

With an election looming, charities are flocking to party conferences in hope of shaping policy.

The Campaign for Rural England's budget for this year's party conferences stands at £11,000, but Ben Stafford, head of campaigns at the charity, doesn't think it will be enough.

"We have budgeted for £11,000, but we'll probably exceed that and we are not sponsoring adverts in the fringe listings or taking stands," he says. "If we did those things we would spend in excess of £40,000."

The party conference season can burn conspicuous holes in charity pockets - so much so that last year, according to the NCVO, fewer charities were bothering to go. The conferences were becoming the preserve of the biggest charities with the largest public affairs budgets.

But in 2008, despite impending recession, it's clear that the trend has been reversed. Fifty per cent more voluntary organisations are attending Labour's 2008 gathering in Manchester than went to last year's Bournemouth conference. In total, at least 330 charities have been accredited. The Conservatives report that more than 500 voluntary organisations will attend their conference in Birmingham, 35 per cent more than made the journey to Blackpool in 2007.

The early bird

Conferences aren't getting any cheaper, so what's the explanation? It seems clear that, with a general election due by May 2010, charities are flocking to the party conferences to pitch ideas to ministers, shadow ministers, advisers and MPs.

Caroline Weston, policy and public affairs officer at Sue Ryder Care, says: "It's imperative that we have a presence at this year's party conferences because, with a general election in 2010 and the possibility of a new government, we can get our messages out to thousands of people across all parties.

"During the past year, we have expanded our conference activity because they allow us to engage with ministers to talk about the issues we face, and discuss how they can support us in influencing better healthcare in the UK."

Significantly, there will be almost as many charity representatives at the conference of the official opposition as that of the sitting government.

"Canny campaigners will have been focusing on the Tories throughout their time in opposition. There is a danger that some organisations are leaving it too late to build their relationship with them," said Pete Moorey, public affairs manager at consumer advice charity Which?, which is holding receptions at all three conferences.

This has not always been the case. "A couple of years ago, lots of people weren't going to the Tory party conference, but that has changed radically," says Chris Stalker, a campaigns and advocacy consultant and former head of campaigns at the NCVO.

With the Conservatives 20 points ahead in the polls, the sector is adjusting itself to the probability of a Conservative government within 18 months, and hoping to shape what that government will be like.

"One of the advantages of lobbying a party of opposition that looks like coming into government is that it is sometimes easier to get them to look at ideas seriously when they are still in opposition," says Stafford. "That's part-ly what's happening at the moment."

That trend might be akin to the intense lobbying that took place in 1995 and 1996 when it seemed likely that New Labour would finally end the Conservatives' long stretch in power. Stalker says that many of the landmarks of Labour's first term, such as the establishment of the Department for International Development, the Disability Discrimination Act and the minimum wage, were in part the result of a concerted period of engagement by the voluntary sector when Labour was in opposition.

Even though the sector will descend on the Conservatives' Birmingham conference in significant numbers, Stalker says the sector has some catching up to do. "I don't get the same sense of engagement and momentum with the Tories as there was in '95 and '96," he says. "I detect organisations aren't quite up to speed on thinking through the scenarios we might be facing if there is a Tory government in 18 months' time."

The Tories might need the sector, but making a beeline to their conference because it's suddenly dawned that David Cameron could soon be in Downing Street is not the best tactic, according to Stafford. "It's unwise of NGOs to show up at conferences only because they think a party is doing well, because the parties notice it," he says. "Whoever is in government, all the parties have different and important roles to play if you are an NGO."

And Moorey is sceptical about the value of attending conferences: "MPs in particular come into contact with so many organisations and individuals that you have to think about whether they are going to remember you after spending five minutes chatting over a glass of wine. You can get an awful lot more out of regular meetings throughout the year at Westminster."

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