UK Politics

Are lobbyists taking over party conferences?

Harvey Nicholls stand

The party faithful are an increasingly rare breed at party conferences, amid an ever-growing army of lobbyists and PR people. What are they all doing there?

It is probably the nearest public relations gets to rock and roll.

Packing your suitcase, kissing your tearful children goodbye and heading off for a month on the road.

It is the same blur of cavernous city centre venues, late nights, too much booze and dodgy hotel rooms, although rock bands probably consume fewer canapes.

"It is a bit of a wrench because the littlest is very little," said mother-of-four Claire Burton, speaking at the Lib Dem conference.

"I suppose if you are going to be doing a job, working with some of the most vulnerable people in society, then a little bit of sacrifice is OK."

Schmoozing

Claire is head of business development at Langley House Trust, which helps to resettle ex-offenders.

Like thousands of other lobbyists she is going to the three main conferences this year.

What does her organisation get out of it?

Image caption The ministerial visit is a highlight of the week for many stallholders

"I think it has various uses. If you have something specific to say. If you've got a particular cause that you need to promote. But you have to be quite focused.

"You have to know who you want to talk to. You have to know exactly what you want to say to them and at the end of the day it might not be of any interest to them at all."

Many organisations - from small charities to corporate giants - will splash out on a stand in the exhibition hall, or sponsor a fringe meeting, which can cost thousands of pounds.

Many more will simply get a conference pass to hang about in the bars and restaurants, or set up private meetings with MPs.

"Some people say you can achieve just as much by setting up meetings with MPs or ministers at Westminster, for less expense," said Simon Butler, parliamentary liaison officer for The Sport and Recreation Alliance, at the Labour conference.

"But I think there is something about being at conference that makes politicians more receptive to new ideas and debate."

But is all this lobbying and schmoozing strictly ethical?

Private lounge

There are plenty who will argue it is sucking the life out of party conferences, which are, after all, meant to be festivals of democracy and political debate.

Ben Harris Quinney, chairman of Tory think tank the Bow Group, is among those who believe it has gone too far.

"Conference is now populated by lobbyists, not members. It offers no freedom and no democratic rights to a membership who barely recognise or connect with what the Party has now become," he says.

Much of the lobbying activity is, at least, out in the open. It is always fun to spot some of the less fashionable causes that have hired stands in the hope of burnishing their image in the eyes of a passing decision-maker.

Image caption Trade unions and charities are among the biggest spenders in the exhibition halls

Tobacco giant Philip Morris had a stand at the Labour Party conference in Brighton, to make the case against smuggling, but they were not welcome at the Conservative gathering a week later in Manchester.

The British Fur Trade Association, on the other hand, is at the Tory conference this week but was not welcome at Labour, apparently.

It is unlikely any minister will have risked being pictured at these stands due to the controversial nature of their products but, for others, particularly those who do a lot of business with the government, the ministerial visit is a highlight of the week.

In fact it is almost part of the package. The Conservative conference organisers send a photographer along to record the handshakes and grins for a souvenir CD.

But just like at Westminster, the real power-broking, and influence-peddling, goes on behind closed doors in private dinners and closed fringe meetings.

This happens at all party conferences, although it was still a slight surprise to see the Conservatives promoting a private lounge area, the Blue Room, where corporate guests can rub shoulders with cabinet ministers and senior party officials for a minimum fee of £20,000 plus VAT.

'Key drop'

The Conservatives have certainly got the commercial side of conference down to a fine art.

They are the only one of the big three to have a mini shopping mall in the exhibition hall, with upmarket brands such as Harvey Nichols and Crombie competing for a slice of the blue pound.

But it would be unfair to single the Conservatives out for using conference as a cash cow.

A quick glance at the commercial opportunities available at Labour's annual conference, from £10,000 to advertise on "eco-friendly" conference bags to £450 for a quarter page ad in the conference brochure, reveals a party every bit as alive to marketing opportunities.

In fact, Labour charges more for a "hotel room key drop" than the Conservatives.

"Have our key Conference guests wake up to your message by getting your flyer delivered overnight direct to their bedrooms," explains the Labour brochure. A snip, surely, at £2,000 (The Tories charge £1,750).

The fact is, conferences are a huge money spinner for all the parties.

In 2012, The Conservative Party made £4.3m from them - getting on for a third of its total income. The Lib Dems made a more modest £1.5m. Labour does not list its income from conferences in its accounts, but it made £3.4m from "commercial activity".

And it is not just the "big three" London-based parties.

As the Westminster press pack gets ready to head home from Manchester on Wednesday, after David Cameron's big speech, the commercial caravan moves on to Perth, in central Scotland, where the SNP are holding their annual shindig.

That's rock and roll...