UK Politics

Q&A: 2013 Party conferences

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

What are party conferences?

They are annual events where MPs, local councillors and ordinary party members gather to hear speeches, debate policy and socialise with like-minded souls.

Why do they have them?

Party conferences used to be all about policy debates and votes on the conference floor. These days the emphasis is more on big set piece speeches and policy announcements. It is a chance for the party leadership to dominate news coverage for a few days and boost the morale of their supporters. Or, if it doesn't go to plan, fend off leadership challenges and plots. There have been proposals over the years to reduce them in size, or only hold them in the year before an election, but they are popular with the membership and a useful source of income for cash-strapped parties.

So what actually happens?

They are four or five day festivals of democracy. Like Glastonbury for political obsessives. At any one time there will be dozens of speeches and debates taking place - some in the main hall in the full glare of the TV cameras, but many more in stuffy hotel conference rooms and lecture theatres on the conference "fringe". The whole thing takes place within a security cordon, giving it a slightly unreal atmosphere. There is also a thriving social scene based around the bars and restaurants of the main conference hotels. Drinks receptions and dinners go on late into the night. It is the only chance grassroots members get to rub shoulders with the big names at the top of their party.

Where are this year's big three conferences?

The Liberal Democrats were first up, gathering in Glasgow for five days from Saturday, 14 September. Labour start their four day event on Sunday, 22 September, in Brighton. The Conservatives meet for four days from Sunday, 29 September in Manchester.

Who goes to them?

It is more than just politicians and party members. At each conference there is a large exhibition hall where businesses, charities, local authorities and other groups hire stalls in the hope of catching the attention of a passing decision maker. There are also mini-shopping malls, with book, food and even clothes shops. Hundreds of journalists also attend, from the Westminster press pack to local paper and trade journalists and bloggers. The big party conferences also attract visiting dignitaries from abroad and the occasional TV celebrity.

Can anyone attend?

No. Security is very 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 attendees 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 came back on to 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?

With a general election less than two years away, the talk will be all about winning votes in 2015. Labour leader Ed Miliband is under pressure to unveil the results of a long-awaited policy review and will also be keen to prepare the ground for a special conference next year to debate his trade union reforms. The Lib Dems and Tories were expected to announce new government policies to prove the coalition has not run out of steam - but,as seen with the Lib Dems, they have also begun the process of uncoupling themselves in the minds of voters by setting out a few of their own distinctive policies.

What about other parties' conferences?

The UK Independence Party meets at the Westminster Central Hall, in London, for two days starting on Friday, 20 September. Plaid Cymru meets in Aberystwyth for two days, from Friday, 11 October. The Scottish National Party's annual conference is from 17 to 20 October in Perth. The Green Party of England and Wales conference was the first, being held for two days from Friday 13 September.