"Even the champagne was flat" why the party conference has changed

By Charles Pitt

A regular criticism of party conferences is that they are now dominated by corporate guests (and their public affairs advisers) eager for valuable face-time with government ministers and senior opposition spokesmen in the amenable setting of a hotel bar. So the argument goes that having abandoned the affordable jollity of seaside resorts the "real activists" are priced out of the event and their voice is no longer heard. But this thumb sketch misses a critically important change that has affected the art of lobbying - a change that is directly responsible for the growing corporate presence at political conferences. 

Consumers are now more politically aware than ever - 24 hour news, blogging and social media have transformed how we engage with the issues that matter to us. And as a consequence traditional routes for the politically-minded are less and less relevant. Activism in local government or local political parties has been supplanted by focused campaigns that target narrower interests. The collation of mass email lists has enabled special interest groups to develop a ruthless streak that would have been thought out of character even a decade ago. And the politically-aware consumer is now confident that such activism is working - unpopular government policies can be killed off when the right message is fired at the right target. 

Politically-aware consumers are bringing pressure to bear on businesses as well as politicians. Where corporate and social responsibility might have in the past been a neat marketing tool it is now a serious business function - one that has been relatively-well insulated from cuts despite the recession. And where businesses were historically likely to exploit contact with government ministers to resist legislation that ran counter to their interests they are now looking to work with government in their customers' interests. Note the way businesses position themselves as thought leaders who are setting their own agenda rather than following the regulators. Instead of arguing that carbon emissions targets set by the EU are unachievable many businesses are actively working to meet tougher targets to tighter deadlines - and telling their customers all about it. 

The activism that presents at party conferences reflects this change. Some journalists have complained that in packed-out fringe meetings every question seemed to be coming from a chief executive or NGO founder. Chief executives have not chosen to invest their time and money in cross-examining junior ministers, or shadow ministers, for light amusement but because they are under increasing pressure to prove their social purpose to their customers and shareholders, and one way in which they can do this is to be seen to be actively engaged in the political process. As for the NGOs, their glossy brochures and slick heads of communications show that they went corporate some time ago. 

The glory days of party leaders taking on a heckler in the conference hall or a speech from an unknown activist that upstaged the prime minister may be a thing of the past. But activism aimed at shaping the policy agenda is as lively as ever - it just looks very different. Consumers are expressing their concerns on the high street as much as at the ballot box or the public meeting. Businesses are responding to this by raising the standard of their political engagement and delivering it in a more transparent way. And one of the many consequences of this is that there are more chief executives (and their public affairs advisers) attending party conferences. But perhaps next year they could try to be a little more sparkling, for the journalists' sake - if Trade Unionists, Liberal Democrat Borough Councillors and Conservative Peers can party surely the NGOs and chief executives can too (with their public affairs advisers)?

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