What a pleasure it was to be back in the swing of things at both conferences – for iNHouse Communications, it’s a chance to catch up with old friends and make new ones and remind ourselves that nothing beats face to face conversations. Communications is a ‘people business’ after all. However, for the political parties, conference can be less of a pleasure and more of a chore. From my days behind the scenes, I remember so much effort going into the conference programme and of course the big set piece speeches given by the party leaders to round off the week. While the lobbyists and comms professionals are all networking away until the wee small hours (some of us more than others….), party leaders are on a circuit of meetings, media interviews and prep for the big finale. It’s anything but fun. Much is always made of the content in the speech itself (or lack of it), but is it all worth it?
Much like the way Prime Minister’s Questions has been boiled down to social media clips online for mass consumption, the only real chance the conferences have of cut through is broadly the same.
Since the Victorian times, party conferences have been a permanent fixture in the political calendar. Often held in a seaside town because few places in the country can accommodate so many visitors at once, in later years conferences became a real money spinner for the political parties. Space at conferences can cost eye watering sums – the Conservatives even charge for handing out leaflets within the secure zone. The income goes a long way to paying for the running costs at campaign headquarters in the months ahead and without it, they are staring at a big black hole on their balance sheet. In terms of performance, Labour insiders are delighted with how their conference season went in terms of fixing some of their internal issues and landing a serious, if not lengthy speech. Of course, the way they use their conference is slightly different to the Conservatives – for them it’s not just a jamboree but a place where rule changes happen. Plus, there is the generous airtime that accompanies a conference gathering, beamed in to viewers at home via the 24-hour news channels and radio coverage which is also useful if people still don’t warm to the party leader or know enough about him.
The PM’s speech was light on content but had the hall cheering from the rafters regardless.
Conferences are riskier for the governing party who are not short of coverage – after all, Boris can command it at his fingertips (and as it goes, so can Michael Gove on the dancefloor…) so it’s easy to understand why there is more to lose and why conferences can be more of a pain than a pleasure. It’s also a huge distraction away from actually running the country – it’s not as if they don’t have enough on their plate already. The Conservative conference was about projecting optimism about the future, against what they call Labour’s pessimistic outlook. The PM’s speech was light on content but had the hall cheering from the rafters regardless.
The real question is, does it really cut through beyond the conference hall? How much do these conferences actually matter or move the dial? Traditionally, those who are not engaged in politics might catch a clip on the evening news but these days they are most likely to scroll through content online, picking out what they are interested in to share. Much like the way Prime Minister’s Questions has been boiled down to social media clips online for mass consumption, the only real chance the conferences have of cut through is broadly the same. This is why you will start to see a hybrid approach over the next few years of engaging content online for those stuck at home and something to keep the members happy in the room, with a healthy dose of business networking on the side. A win-win-win, and enough money rolling in to keep party HQ ticking over. When it comes to party conferences, there’s life in the old dog yet.
Katie Perrior is Chair of iNHouse Communications and former No10 Director of Communications