Party conference – what’s it all about?

August, for CAF’s Campaigns team, typically means one thing: party conference preparation.


Each year we send a team to the major party political conferences (Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat) where we have a range of activity designed to raise awareness of CAF’s work and influence decision makers. But just what happens at party conference, and why do we go?


Party conference is each political party’s set-piece event for the year. Typically taking place in a major city or seaside town, conference gives each party the spotlight for the week, where their politicians and policies are placed under the microscope. Crucially, it gives each party a platform to communicate directly with the electorate for an extended period of time, which is of course more important than ever in the run-up to an election.


In addition to the senior politicians, conference is also for party members. In the past, conferences gave party members an opportunity to offer their opinions on, influence and even change party policy. This function is now mostly defunct, although each party does still try and involve party activists in decision making, with differing degrees of success. Now, the activists who provide the fuel that powers political parties instead can go along and interact with the MPs and others who depend on their support.


Finally, conference is also about influencing, and the attendance reflects this. Putting a collection of representatives, journalists and opinion makers into one venue is every lobbyists dream, and gives charities, businesses and interest groups the ability to conduct mass engagement with stakeholders in a compact amount of time.


So what do CAF do at conference?


Each year, we have a stand that promotes CAF’s policy and campaigns work. Normally our stand features some kind of game or exciting visual to attract conference attendees, and we use conference season to launch a report that we can communicate with visitors. Last year this was the ‘People Power’ report (and bike!), and we’ll be unveiling what we have planned for 2014 soon. On the stand, we talk to people – MPs, Lords, councillors, activists, and other organisations – and talk them through our work and positions on a range of issues. Time to engage is short on the stand, so beforehand we hone our message so that it can be easily communicated in about 20 seconds.


In addition to the stand, CAF holds a series of events across each conference. These fringe events give politicians and commentators the opportunity to communicate their thoughts on a topic – typically related to the report we have just launched – and also gives conference attendees the chance to voice their praise or concerns for a party’s direction in any particular policy area. Each fringe event takes a lot of organising) but the events themselves can be extremely thought-provoking.


In short, our presence comes down to communication and influencing. By engaging with decision makers, activists and opinion formers we are able to increase the volume of our message, and make sure that CAF’s activities are on the political agenda. We conduct public affairs and political engagement activity throughout the year, of course, but that tends to be focused on the people who are in the specific roles relevant to CAF’s work. This is our chance to reach out to a wider audience, which is essential in an industry where reshuffles and reallocations of responsibilities are regular occurrences.


So what will CAF be doing this year?


For conference season 2014, we have a number of interesting projects in the pipeline. We have commissioned a report from IPPR looking at the value of charity to society, which will form the basis for engagement on our stand. Our stand itself will feature an interactive game and an amazing graphic that shows that illustrates the breadth of what charities do in a community – including the presence of a number of special guests!


Finally, this year we are doing some work in partnership with ACEVO. Ahead of the election next year, we have asked politicians from each party to write essays setting out their hopes for the future of the voluntary sector. These will be finalised in the coming weeks, but high profile contributors so far include Lib Dem MPs Julian Huppert and Norman Lamb, Conservatives Penny Mordaunt and Rory Stewart. For Labour, the likes of David Blunkett and Steve Reed are involved. At our fringes, contributors will be giving a brief outline of their essay before taking questions, and these interesting events should be well attended by those keen to understand the direction that the sector will take following the election.


Conference season involves a lot of hard work and preparation, but the results are worth it. Each year, more and more people remember CAF as an organisation and it ensures that when politicians want to know what is happening across the charity sector we are at the forefront of their mind. With the polls as tight as they are, no-one knows what the outcome of the election will be and this is one of our last chances to make our voice heard before manifestos are written. That’s what we’ll be doing in Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow in the coming weeks.

Steve Clapperton

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