Party conferences are a crucial time in which ministers, special advisors, backbench MPs, MSPs, Members of the Welsh Assembly, local councillors and other stakeholders are brought together to thrash out policies, set priorities, swap gossip, discuss the latest intrigues and normally party into the early hours. Stripped of their civil servants, who are not allowed to attend, it is a time when Ministers are truly open to new ideas and reasoning. Conferences, therefore, present a unique opportunity to reach the political establishment.
It's not just politicians who decamp to the British seaside for Conference season. At each conference businesses, industries and charities exhibit and take the opportunity to lobby politicians on salient issues. While most people don’t see past the big set piece speeches by the party leaders and guest speakers, away from the main hall, there are fringe events held by all sorts of organisations. These are largely informal forums where a panel of speakers debate a particular issue and take questions from the audience.
For the parties themselves, the annual conference has the overriding merit of giving them a week-long media boost with each party determined to reap the maximum benefit by communicating a clear and simple message. David Cameron used it to prepare his party for a General Election, delivering a speech based heavily around the theme of 'optimism' and committed to the party to abandoning ID cards, giving more freedom to GPs and giving head teachers more powers. In contrast Gordon Brown focussed on health, education and crime. His speech was relatively light on policy although he did announce an increase in funding for medical research, more university grants to be available to be available to poor students and the 'deep cleaning' of hospitals over Christmas and New Year. For the Liberal Democrats, the conference offered Sir Menzies Campbell an opportunity to reassert his authority after what has generally been agreed to have been a dismal year.
Despite this, conferences more often than not fall into the trap of ratcheting up the razzmatazz, rolling out the platitudes and cliches and ramping up the rhetoric for the visiting media where enormous feats of stamina are witnessed each night as delegates party into the small hours.