With Party Conference season nearly upon us, PHA’s Head of Political Strategy, Tim Snowball, outlines his top tips for anyone considering attending conferences this year.
Tim’s top tips
1. Give it a go:
Political conferences aren’t just for party obsessives and journalists, they are a great way for individuals and organisations with an a commercial interest or campaign issue to promote to engage with those in political world. Last year just a third of those who attended Tory conference were members of the Conservative Party. It’s a similar situation at the other two.
With the outcome of the election wide open and all the parties starting to set out their stall for the next Parliament, this year’s conferences offer a window beyond 2015 and will be of interest to any business that could be impacted by legislation or changes to government policy.
Conferences are also a great opportunity to engage with the political process early. Those who say it can all be done in Westminster are like those who think they have engaged with the food industry by buying a chocolate bar in a newsagent. Visit the factory and you find out what goes on at the source. Only by attending party conferences will you get a real feel for where politicians are coming from.
2. Plan Ahead
Ok, perhaps not the most helpful guidance to give with two weeks to go and by no means a deal breaker if you’re yet to decide whether attend.
But planning ahead can both make conference attendance more successful in terms of achieving your goals as an organisation (securing meetings, hosting fringes, booking an exhibition stall, securing a speaking platform) and a lot cheaper (registration is cheaper for early bookers, not to mention transport and accommodation).
On an individual level, review the Agenda and Fringe guides before you arrive and plot out how you want to spend your time. There’s a lot going on and a ‘decide as you go’ approach rarely leads to the best experience.
3. Networking is your number one goal
Amid a flurry of engagements and separated from their officials, politicians aren’t doing real government business at conference, but they are more accessible than normal and are open to ideas which may be hard to put before them back in Westminster.
Don’t expect to achieve shifts in government policy after a coffee snatched in a corner of the conference centre, but do take the opportunity to establish relationships, plant ideas and get contact details that will allows a subsequent follow up.
Don’t obsess about meeting Cabinet Ministers for a 30min sit down – you probably wont be able to. But when networking, look out for second and third tier influencers, PPSs, select committee members, backbench MPs, peers, party advisers, local authority leaders. PHA’s political team can help if you need support in working out a stakeholder map.
Don’t forget to follow up every new connection as soon as you are able. Politicians meet so many people at conference and however interested they may have seemed, they may not remember you back in London unless you strike while the iron is hot.
4. Know what you want to say
It’s cheesy to say so, but conference really is an elevator pitch time. Know what you want to say before you arrive.
Consider your message, what you want to change, how this translates into policy, how much it will cost and why this should be of interest to the politician eight months out from the General Election.
You need to make a compelling case to change a manifesto at this stage in the cycle so prepare well and be prepared to be challenged on the detail.
5. Ask Questions
Fringes are not the preserve of the party member. You’ve paid to attend, you’re entitled to take part.
If you want insight into where a party is going policy wise, a good option is to ask a spokesperson at a fringe.
Fringe events are also great opportunities to draw attention to your organisation and your issues. Asking questions may stimulate wider interest in what you do and may well lead to productive conversations with other attendees after the event.
6. Experience the Auditorium
The Auditorium is the best place to take the temperature of each party and see how their business is done.
Don’t just go in for the big speeches- watch some debate, hear the views of activists and examine the power dynamics at play.
Watch the Labour leadership bow and scrape to the Unions, see the Tory clapometer as the membership express their love or loathing for the various speakers and witness the Lib Dem leadership try to avoid defeat at the hands of activists in big policy debates.
7. Mingle in the bar and prepare for a late one
This is the only time political parties actually feel anything like parties as the rest of us know them.
It is also the best place to find an inebriated special adviser prepared to be a lot franker than you will ever get in Westminster.
Identify the “official” hotel and head there nightly.
8. Corporate programmes are good, but costly
Each of the parties put on a comprehensive corporate programme for at least one day of their conference.
Be under no misunderstanding this is a money making scheme first and foremost. But, if your pockets are deep and you want a ready made programme with some access to the higher echelons and spokespeople, these aren’t bad options especially if you wont be at conference for long.
Don’t be afraid to make your interests and expectations clear to organisers in advance, there is often scope for tailoring if it attracts your custom.
9. Pace yourself
Conference season can be exhausting, especially if you’re a late night networker and going to all three.
Try to get some sleep. Carry a bottle of water at all times. Wear comfortable shoes. Take fruit in your suitcase (I have never found any for sale once you’re there). Book restaurant tables if you want to have any chance of getting a table within a mile of the conference centre.
10. Have a great time!
PHA Media will be at each of the main party conferences this year. If we can support you or your organisation or if you are interested in joining us at the conference, please get in touch!