The purpose of political party conferences
Political party conferences are often dismissed as over-hyped jollies. In fact, says Sarah Chisnall, Director of Public Affairs, they are vital meeting points, at which professional bodies such as ICAS can advance their sectors’ interests
This is the time of year when MPs return to Parliament after the summer recess, only to disappear again just a couple of weeks later. Westminster has a mini-recess to allow parties to hold their annual conferences – although Holyrood doesn’t stop and MSPs must fit the UK conferences between sittings (Scottish parties hold their own get-togethers in spring).
Those of us who have been around the world of policy and public affairs longer than we care to remember found these events would come with some excitement. You could head off to Blackpool, Brighton, Bournemouth or Harrogate knowing you were guaranteed a bit of political gossip, a few mishaps (remember Theresa May’s struggles with a cough and collapsing lettering in 2017, or Neil Kinnock falling into the sea at Brighton back in 1983?), some fiery speeches, and the chance to catch up with fellow professionals and politicians.
But why do businesses and charities shell out thousands of pounds to join this merry-go-round? Conferences used to be the place where policies were agreed, speeches were made, rising stars would cut their teeth, and the party leader would close proceedings with a rousing speech before duly receiving a standing ovation.
They still end with everyone on their feet, but a lot has changed. Conferences are big business and a crucial part of party fundraising. If you want to attend as a business, your four-day pass at the two biggest conferences this year will set you back around £850–1,200. If you wish to host a fringe meeting, you’re talking upwards of £3,000. Advertising and marketing packages start at £500 and rise steeply. Hosting a drinks reception will cost £10,000 or more.
Why ICAS will be there
This year, I’ll be travelling to Liverpool, Manchester and Aberdeen in consecutive weeks to attend, respectively, the Labour, Conservative and SNP conferences. Going to conference makes a statement about your organisation – that you are serious about what the parties have to say, want to influence the debate and care enough to spend the time, money and effort involved. ICAS has a clear public interest mandate, under the terms of our 1854 Royal Charter, which includes contributing to policy and legislation in the interests of wider society. We attend for just a day or two and do not throw expensive events. We’ll be there to listen, read the room, and, we hope, be heard, thanks to our focus on public interest and our emphasis on doing the right thing.
As Ramsay Jones, formerly a journalist and Conservative Special Adviser (Spad) to Number 10, now the MD of public affairs company Gen Comms, told me recently: “Organisations like ICAS should absolutely be at party conferences. They remain one of the best places to have some ‘off-duty’ face time with key people you might want to influence. If you are trying to lobby on legislation, they’re obviously a great place to have those discussions, and right now, with a general election looming, getting across your views and ideas for party manifestos can be easier to do at a party conference.”
Jones, who has attended conferences for years in his roles both in media and politics, echoed what I always told clients when I was a political consultant: “Organisations have a choice – do you want to shape the world in which you operate, or are you happy to be shaped and have it done to you? Party conference is a great forum for making sure it’s the former.”
These days, conference is less about the main hall, and more about the scores of surrounding fringe events. These offer a chance to hear what party members think and to hear directly from the politicians who speak there. This helps us to develop our priorities and work out how we can influence what happens to us and our sector.
As Spad for Labour’s Shadow Secretary for Scotland, and the party’s prospective parliamentary candidate for Glasgow South, Gordon McKee will wear at least two hats at conference. “It is one of the few times you have the entire organisation gathered in one place,” he says. “If you plan well, you can have a cuppa and chat to members of the shadow cabinet, MPs and prospective MPs, MSPs, advisers and councillors in a few days.
“It’s all about building those critical relationships, both when a party is in government, but also when it's in opposition. CAs have lots of expertise to offer, and politicians want to hear that. The candidates or shadow ministers you speak to in Liverpool could be MPs or ministers next year.”
The ICAS agenda
High on ICAS’ agenda is corporate governance and audit reform, because addressing problems in this area is taking too long. The Audit Reform Bill, some five years in the making, now looks unlikely to happen before the next election, so what can we do in its place? The role of international reporting standards to measure the impact of business on the environment and society is also on our list – how and when will a UK government adopt the international standards announced in June?
As ICAS’ representative, I’ll also raise widening access to the profession and making sure we have diversity in our sector, as well as enough qualified CAs to meet the growing demands of business and reporting. Simplifying tax and offering more resources for HMRC to make things easier for individuals, SMEs and large business are other conversations we hope to have.
Conferences have changed in shape, size and cost and most MPs' diaries are now over-managed. At heart, though, they are still about relationships – and ICAS intends to keep building those on behalf of our members.