Q&A: 2012 Party conferences

The autumn political party conference season is upon us. Here is our guide to them.

What are party conferences?

They are the annual events where MPs, councillors and activists from the parties gather to hear their political leaders give platform speeches, to debate and vote on policies, discuss political intrigue and party into the night with like-minded souls.

So what actually happens?

Ministers, shadow ministers, frontbenchers and other leading lights in the parties make keynote speeches in the main conference hall. Some grassroots members also get the chance to speak and vote in many debates. Away from the set-piece events there are fringe meetings - often in hotels near the conference centre - with more informal speeches and question and answer sessions. Party activists crowd the bars, restaurants, dinners and drinks receptions late into the night.

Where are this year's big three conferences?

The Liberal Democrats are first up, gathering in Brighton for five days from Saturday, 22 September. Labour start their five day event the following Saturday, 29 September, in Manchester. The Conservatives meet for four days from 7 to 10 October in Birmingham.

Who goes to them?

It is more than just politicians and party members. At each conference there is a huge exhibition hall where business, industries and other groups have stalls and use the opportunity to raise their profile and lobby decision makers. Virtually the entire Westminster press corps also decamps to the conferences.

Can anyone attend?

No. Security is tight and you must apply weeks in advance for a pass.

How big are the events?

Huge. Conservative and Labour conferences regularly attract upwards of 10,000 of visitors while the Lib Dems have seen a big jump in attendance since they entered government in 2010.

Aren't they normally at the seaside?

They used to be. But the trend now is to hold them in one of Britain's major metropolitan cities. However, Brighton is back on the roster in 2012 after a couple of years' absence.

What difference can the conferences make?

The days when conferences decided what went in the next general election manifesto are, for the most part, gone, although the amount of say ordinary members get varies between parties. Labour and the Lib Dems still hold votes on policy motions. For the big parties it is largely all about media coverage but a conference speech can still make or break a party leader or act as a springboard to a fledgling career. With so many journalists and politicians in close proximity they are also a great chance to plot and often set the tone for the next few months at Westminster.

What's particularly on the agenda this year?

The future of the coalition is bound to dominate the Lib Dem and Conservative conferences with itchy feet among activists of both parties. Both Nick Clegg and David Cameron are under pressure over the lack of growth in the economy and will be looking to reassure their party faithful as well as the public about their leadership. As for Labour, Ed Miliband will be looking to give a clearer indication of what his party would do in government.

What about other parties' conferences?

Plaid Cymru and the Green Party have already held their annual conferences. The UK Independence Party's conference is from 21 to 22 September. The Scottish National Party conference will be held in Perth in October.

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