7 August 2018 | By Hannah Collins Insight

Why do people still attend party conferences?

With party conference season almost upon us, CBI Campaigns Adviser Hannah Collins sets out the benefits of attending - and highlights the CBI's plans for this year

In 1867 the first party conference was held by the fresh-faced leader of the Conservative Party, Benjamin Disraeli. In the 151 years since, a lot has changed.

The first conference was part of the modernising of political parties, in response to the Second Reform Act of 1867 which extended the franchise to over a million working men. Party conferences were initially dominated by policy debates and votes on the conference floor by party members.

Today, policy motions are still held at the Labour and Liberal Democrat conferences – just last year both parties voted on their official stances on Brexit. But due to the modern nature of politics, the focus is more on the set piece speeches, fringe events, networking and exhibitions. And the combination of an uninterrupted media spotlight alongside a captive audience of party members, businesses and stakeholders makes conference season a real opportunity to have their message heard. 

So what are the benefits of attending party conference for politicians and businesses?

For political parties and politicians, it’s a chance to highlight policy announcements – whether it be Tony Blair making a pledge on education in 1996 or 10 years later with Theresa May’s speech setting out her Brexit red lines. A confident speech at conference can make future leaders (William Hague’s at Blackpool, aged 16), while a poor performance can break one (think Ed Miliband’s deficit blunder).

However, away from the optics, conference gives politicians and grassroot members a chance to discuss the state of the party and its future – be it good or bad.

For businesses and organisation such as the CBI, conference offers an efficient use of time. In no other place could you catch up for coffee with the CEO of Heathrow, before taking part on a panel discussion with Labour’s John McDonnell and Rebecca Long Bailey, and Frances O'Grady from the TUC, before finishing the day with a meeting with the DUP leader.

Just bumping into people at conference you can pick up nuggets of information you wouldn’t usually. It offers a perfect environment to interpret messages and, ultimately, gain insight on key issues. Last year, being there meant the CBI could respond to Labour’s nationalisation strategy more rapidly and thoroughly than we otherwise might.

The line-up this year

This year, the CBI will be attending the Labour, Conservative and SNP conferences to highlight the value of business in society and to have an open dialogue with government. It ties in with our ultimate aim of helping business to thrive in these times of uncertainty.

As well organising meetings with stakeholders, our Director-General Carolyn Fairbairn, our Deputy Director-General Josh Hardie, and Chief UK Policy Director Matthew Fell will be speaking on panels.

CBI fringe events, titled ‘Building a global Britain: equipping the UK to win on the world stage’ will also look at how government and business can work in partnership to build a more competitive Britain to seize the opportunities on offer and unlock growth and prosperity across the UK.

Find out the who will be speaking at the CBI’s conference events and when they are taking place here.

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