This Spring sees the last lot of party conferences before the big event.
Some are specific national conferences, like the Conservative Welsh Conference that has just taken place. Others are UK wide, like the Lib Dem conference due to take place later in March (13/14/15th) and Ukip’s event in Margate. Organisations such as “grassroots” organisation Conservative Home also hold events around this time.
Party conferences serve a wide range of functions, from policy-making, to socialising, from training to selling. But the ones just before a General Election are those in which each party tries to make the event a “shop window” on vote winning policies and camera friendly delegates.
For everything happening on stage, there is as much if not more going on just out of sight. The aim is to get the best camera angles, the best speeches, the most TV coverage.
Likely policy announcements are trailed weeks in advance with a drip-drip approach to media management. Sessions are timed so that the most vote-worthy happen at the times most likely to provide an audience. And of course the Leader’s speech is briefed out in advance and planned with a good clutch of soundbites in mind.
This might make attending conference as a delegate seem a little pointless. But party members still compete for places at these events and put great stress on being there and taking part.
As a regular conference goer I find it fascinating to watch the changes that happen as the electoral cycle goes round. Conferences shortly after an election can be loud and argumentative. Those shortly before tend to be well disciplined and worthy.
In 2005, Florence Faucher-King published her work on the anthropology of party conferences. She spent years immersing herself in four different party cultures (Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Green). From who has votes to who has voices, this is a fascinating look at how the tribes behave.
But the tribe of members is arguably less important at a pre General Election conference than the tribe of media. This Spring, watch out for those manifesto moments.
(I’ll be taking a separate look at any comment worthy party conference happenings as this blog goes on. The BBC’s Parliament Channel often covers large amounts of each party conference so it’s the place to go to for conference obsessives).