Looking forward to a 'bumper' party conference season

Written by David Singleton on 7 February 2017 in Features

As accreditation opens for the 2017 party conference season, lobbyists are not writing them off just yet.

In recent years, some lobbyists have left the autumn party conferences wondering whether it was worth the hassle.

In 2015, anyone entering the secure zone at Conservative conference in Manchester faced harassment from angry protestors lining up outside.

In 2016, the main gripe at Tory conference concerned the poor quality of the platform speeches as Number 10 ordered cabinet ministers not to say anything too interesting. Labour conference last year posed a different challenge for lobbyists. After Jeremy Corbyn was re-elected as Labour leader one agency boss told me he was not around for a drink on Sunday evening because he had already "escaped". And with everything up in the air, many other Labour movers and shakers took similar action and fled the scene.

"The speeches are awful, the costs are ridiculous and the abuse of innocent lobbyist delegates as they enter the Conservative Conference is an affront to our human rights," laments Weber Shandwick’s public affairs and corporate affairs chief Jon McLeod as he looks back on his last few outings.

But as the 2017 conference season looms on the horizon, there are signs that party conferences could be back with a bang in lobbyist diaries.

This year, the Conservatives will be in Manchester, Labour return to Brighton and the Lib Dems are back in Bournemouth. The SNP conference is expected to be in Glasgow. And with Brexit thrown into the mix, Connect Communications boss Andy Sawford is one lobbyist who believes that the coming conference season could be especially lively.

"We help our clients to use their time and resources to best effect to get their issues on the agenda and build relationships. I predict a bumper conference season in 2017 as people seek to influence the new political landscape as Britain exits the EU," says Sawford, a former Labour MP.

He adds: "The conferences set the political direction for the year ahead and offer a unique insight into the mood of the parties.  They are also a place to discover the political rising stars who are popular turns on the fringe and building support amongst the rank and file.  Conference season is our busiest time of the year, particularly now that there are four big ones, given the strength of the SNP in both Scotland and Westminster."



Lobbying firms are also thinking about how to build on last year’s work in 2017. They include FleishmanHillard Fishburn who held a live screening of US presidential election debate event during Labour conference. The event kicked off at 1145pm and got under way in earnest even later.

As I penned my weekly lobbying lowdown at the end of Labour conference week, I gave FleishmanHillard Fishburn the award for most rock and roll gathering at a party conference. But what does the agency have up its sleeve for 2017?

FleishmanHillard Fishburn head of public affairs Michelle Di Lio says: “A successful party conference season for an agency may look very different to a successful conference season for clients.

"The trick from our point of view is to show up in a highly creative and engaging way, which is in tune with the prevailing political mood and issue of the moment and provides added value for those attending.  What seems like a good idea in February can quickly become old news by September, so it is easier said than done."

But it is not just agencies who are formulating their plans for the autumn. The Enterprise Forum has held events at Tory conference since 1997 and in recent years has snared successive chancellors to speak at its business reception. In 2017, chairman Andrew Cumpsty has no qualms about pushing ahead with more conference activity.

"In this age of complex, multi-level communications, effective business and decision making is still most often delivered at a human level, most especially face to face," he says.

"Party conference still gives organisations, businesses and individuals the chance to meet most of the senior political decision makers. If visits to party conference are well planned and organised, they still deliver outstanding results - even in this brave new world."

Rob Ellis of Dods (publisher of Public Affairs News, PoliticsHome, Total Politics and The House magazine) echoes the upturn in interest in 2017.

“It’s fair to say that over the last couple of years, event activity at conference has plateaued," says Ellis, who has been ubiquitous at party conferences for some years.

"In recent years clients have been asking us for more and more creative solutions for their challenges. However, we’ve already received above average enquiries for the time of year. Understandably, requests for events at the Tory conference are the highest. More interesting is the amount of clients looking at Lib Dems and SNP, the latter rivalling Labour for potential activity.”



Party conferences may have changed over the years, but all the signs are that long-serving attendees from the public affairs world are still as committed to them as ever.

"They still relevant and important as gathering places for the political elites and those who need to engage with them," says Di Lio, who has been attending party conferences since 1993.

Similarly, conference veteran and Terrapin Communications boss Peter Bingle insists that “serious public affairs professionals have to attend the Labour and Tory Party conferences".

He adds: “The arguments in favour of attending are as compelling as ever. Provided they are planned in advance party conferences provide a unique insight into how political parties actually work as well as creating an informal atmosphere in which to meet key ministers and Shadow ministers without having to deal with their minders.”

Bingle is not planning to go to Lib Dem conference. But he says there compelling reasons for attending both the Labour and Tory conferences in 2017.

"Tory conference remains the perfect place to mingle informally with ministers and their advisers,” he insists.

"Labour Party Conference is particularly useful from the perspective of engaging with Labour local council leaders. For all of the problems at a national level the Labour Party is still very powerful and relevant at a local government level. Conference provides the perfect opportunity to engage in meaningful conversations with some of the most powerful and radical local council leaders."

Talking to public affairs professionals, it would seem that any reports of the death of party conferences have been greatly exaggerated. Rather, some lobbyists expect them be more important than ever in 2017. Just don’t mention the angry mobs, sticky carpets, brown food and warm white wine.




Main picture by: Isabel Infantes/EMPICS Entertainment

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