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How to innovate party conferences?

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How do you innovate the conference structure? How can political parties challenge their routines and ask what really works best for their members?

One journalist I spoke to at the recent UUP event said it was too well stage-managed. When I put that to a UUP guy, he simply said: ‘I take that as a compliment.’

I understand why both would say that. But party organisers should consider all types of feedback and ask – are we providing an event which is effective and easily digestible (for media & members)?

This year the UUP tried something different… the half-day conference. Great idea – go for the variation and test your assumptions about what a conference can do. Downsizing does have certain advantages – sharp, focused, impactful – but it might come at the cost of thinning out important elements like interraction / networking / atmosphere? Do you instill an esprit de corps by marshalling a single, tight agenda for four hours inside one room?

From my perspective, the UUP conference was extremely well managed and well run. In the main this was the picture of how the traditional conference should be run – but it must be said that the location wasn’t great (dislocation of stalls from main event space detracted from conference spirit). But was this journalist right? Do even the best managed traditional party conferences lack dynamism? Is the traditional conference structure is now past its sell-by date?

Aside from setpiece speeches, there were two motions for discussion at the UUP conference: one on the economy; and one on education. Again, this is not criticism of how the UUP delivered this traditional debating element (it was well-managed), but I wonder how effective this was. Does this provide genuinely challenging content? Are these ‘open goal’ debates capable of providing vibrant discussion? If not should they be reviewed?

The conference is the one opportunity where the personality and complexion of your party is known. This is where you mix with people who share your outlook and aspirations. Some questions:

  • How can you force this mixing of views; how do you promote engagement?
  • How are parties engaging with members after conference (when ideas are fresh and morale is high)?
  • What will parties do to capture feedback; comment?
  • After the main event in the hall, could smaller micro-events be held by youth wings? How do you empower young people and deliver greater participation for youth organisations etc?
  • Could an ‘unconference’ run alongside the bigger conference?
  • Belfast-centred events are fine (after all most of the population lives within 10 miles of the capital) – but what about hosting smaller events (Derry & Enniskillen)? Do parties already do this? If not why not?
  • How integrated is digital content / online to the conference agenda and format?
  • Do parties run NING member sites? Can they get all members with computer access logged in? How can elements of the conference be spun out into social media?
  • How can you go beyond the two-motion format? How do you expand opportunities for input from all members?
  • How do you speak to people beyond the hall? What range and variety of content is there for the media?

I know parties do not have unlimited time and unlimited resources to pour into these things – only so much can be done to innovate on format, but I feel it’s certainly time for parties to challenge the old routines. The UUP at their event did show a willingness to do this.

However, I bumped into one very bright and very committed young activist on that Saturday who had travelled some distance to attend. He was concerned that when he left he would do so having not contributed very much. He said there wasn’t much of an outlet for him. The conference had not met this individual’s needs (when he is precisely the kind of person you want engaged and participating). So I wonder:

  1. How can parties improve outlets for activists to drive forward an agenda?
  2. How can the media get good content from the conference?

The trick will be in radicalising the traditional big hall structure and transforming / segmenting it into something more suited to the media and to specific groups of members (eg. young people). The UUP have begun the process of revising the approach to conference, but there’s still some distance yet to travel.

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Filed under: conferences

9 Responses

  1. thedissenter says:

    The move to a more structured and ‘controlled’ conference from Party hierarchy probably came to most attention as Blair’s Labour sought to close down far left dissent and open the possibility of a manifesto that would make Labour electable – remember Foot’s manifesto – the longest suicide note in political history?

    Activism tends to be more frontline and ‘hardline’, while the British electorate is capable of grasping necessity and essential action (as it did with initially with Thatcher and may well with Cameron at the outset) but tends towards a softish conservative centre. Then again activists are on the frontline and constantly having to respond and articulate arguments that will defeat opposing views.

    Not that the Conservative Party didn’t have its conference challenges. The Conservative Party would never have organised in Northern Ireland – it was a constituency and grass roots campaign that assured a Conference vote to make that happen. The platform at that conference was furious and did everything to stop the motion going through.

    The LibDems retain conference policy directing debate. Enough said.

    It is no surprise that membership of organisations is in decline when the impression from the centre is that the purpose of the local area is to fundraise for the Party without a great deal of influence or input into policy or direction. While today’s Conservative Party makes noises about taming big government, a look at its own organisation sees a suffocation of the grassroots, the centralisation of fundraising and an end to any real influence by the grassroots in policy formation. Perhaps it may be what it takes to win, but it is worrying none the less that political power is being centred in the hands of a few rather than being sustained by the many. That impact, to be considered another time.

    And of course those who find that they have no voice find other means of political engagement. For the UUP it the loss of a generation to the DUP, for the DUP it is the loss of some core supporters to the TUV, SF to splinters etc. Nationally, conservatives to UKIP/ED, Labour to BNP. From the weekend we can see the potential dangers of centralised mass engagement in the loss of Virginia and New Jersey by the Democrats – such success may in fact be transient and wholly dependent on meeting unrealistic expectations.

    The big issue for the Parties is not simply the issue of conferences being managed and dull – you might as well sit at home and watch TV – it is a wider issue of engaging and maintaining grassroots support. In centralising many parties seem to be giving greater credence to focus groups and polls than to their own membership who are then expected to understand and loyally knock on doors come elections and defend policies in which they have no stakeholding. It also means policy is often light as it hasn’t really been debated, merely deduced.

    A centralising party is all the more distant from its grassroots, less willing to listen, and affecting or achieving the character of aloofness – the consequence is Trimble’s demise and the DUPs current predicament.

  2. bobballs says:

    Great insight Dissenter. Little to disagree with there. My feeling is that within a (any) political party where grassroots engagement is a priority, the old conference structures are just inadequate.

    A party may anticipate getting its best media coverage through the conference event. And because of this press & media managers tend to dominate the planning of them. That is understandable but I wonder whether the media manager is overly dominant? Do party activists feel they are being corralled rather than engaged?

    It seems to me that digital media etc offers opportunities for parties to satisfy media & activists, and to bring the big event closer to activists. The capacity to broadcast and to stream content live places the political Party in the driving seat. For example, at the UUP conference Nicholson made a joke that he needed to keep his introduction short to ensure Reg got a soundbite onto the lunchtime news. Fair enough – that’s how it works presently. But taking ownership of digital content could mean that you can diminish dependency on the mainstream media.

    All political parties want their conference to be broadcasted far and wide. Getting onto big broadcasters like the BBC is seen as important (so you tailor your event to suit the BBC’s agenda). But what if you recorded your own content, edited it, shaped it and distributed it yourself – what if the party views itself primarily as the main broadcaster?

    Taking primacy in your content would wrest dependence away from traditional media, wrest the agenda away from media managers, and provide the freedom to bring your event closer to activists.

    So how to take control? Parties are already doing most of this stuff (recording, editing, shaping etc)… the bit that they aren’t really doing is the distribution.

    Distribution should not mean audience share on a Saturday afternoon, or grabbing 45secs on the lunchtime bulletins – this concentrates efforts on achieving a big-hit over a one or two day period. What if parties could distribute self-generated content themselves via email, via online video streaming, via blogs, via websites etc?

    The politically active are active online. Why not segment and target your content and distribute it directly to this audience? Instead of one blast over 2/3 days, media managers could think of broadcasting as an online activity that’s spun out consistently over one or two weeks.

    Parties will inevitably move away from a traditional structure and reflect changes in media consumption, it’s just a question of time. And when they do they will feel empowered to put membership first (and not MSM), and when they disseminate self-generated content themselves, I feel they will do a better overall job of engagement.

    My assessment of the UUP’s approach is that this was presented as a media event (condensed agenda, main meat completed before 1pm), and the primacy lay with traditional print and broadcast media. The schedule was frontloaded because organisers no doubt feared journalists would lose concentration the longer they sat about. Consequently everything after 1pm (the grassroots bit) felt a bit lacklustre. Hence the complaint made to by that young guy in the blog post above.

    I think party press people should be talking to digital marketing specialists – when they gather in that resource I think it will allow the voice of the ordinary member to be heard much more clearly.

  3. thedissenter says:

    It’s worth a roundtable discussion rather than a ping pong of comments. I signed on to the Cameron weekly emails, just out of curiosity. While they may get out his message, I am finding them irritating because the communication is one way and it runs out the line and is often not that good (viewed from its value as a communication to me).

    Yes, membership of all organisations are in decline. I found it incredible that people bothered to be surprised at the apparent fall in OO membership over 40/50 years – in fact the numbers were pretty good against political party memberships. The initial post, taking time to think about comment, and then your response raises the biggest question of all: what is the value of the ordinary member?

    Greenpeace or any activist organisation knows that in addition to finance in and information out there are two key aspects to the its engagement to the activist supporter. 1) the constant offer of things to do/people to meet/events etc. 2) a planned campaign programme where there are short medium and long term targets to provide wins and maintain engagement and interest. Digital media offers new communications channels, though enthusiasm for its use is currently ahead of the understanding of its impact. ‘Use’ is the key word.

    There is a broader discussion than conference because the fundamental question of strategy and purpose is what is lacking. And that is true of all the Northern Ireland parties after 1998.

  4. As a complete outsider – though I see parallels with church denomination conferences like PCI’s General Assembly – surely parties need to be engaging outside the formal conference.

    Why don’t they host a Saturday debate on a single issue, time to listen to outsiders, allowing a lot more members to express their views, and not be limited by a conference timetable?

    Outside election years – are there any of those in NI? – why don’t they take a policy every month or six weeks and explore it online, in speeches, internally and in the public square, rather than storing up all their tinder for the manifesto.

    There seemed to be a race at the EU elections to see who could be slowest to publish their manifesto. Didn’t the DUP win that race?

    Engagement and consultation happens outside of the set piece “showcase” events, that are more about speaking from the front, getting out core messages, rallying members to action, and getting a couple of soundbites into the news and weekend politics shows.

  5. bobballs says:

    thanks Alan – yes, I definitely do think there’s something in that. To my eyes, political parties have conflated ‘talking from the front’ with policy engagement.

    ALan, you would allow the conference to remain as a knees up for the media – but run a calendar of engagement activities separate to it.

    I’d prefer to use the conference format as focal point and allow a range of additional events to ripple out from it.

    Our methodologies are different, but essentially we’re talking about the same thing – political parties could do very much more to promote greater engagement on policy.

    I think it’s fair to say that all political parties (Party officers / executives / branches / associations etc) regularly meet to discuss party business. But how much on policy? How much information is being transmitted from the bottom up, as opposed to being issued from the top down?

    Memberships and HQs do have competing interests – but i wonder if the increase of overtly centralised control and the marked reduction in political activism (a slide in members & voters) are related?

    Or at least, i think it’s true to say that the dilution of centralised control and greater grassroots empowerment holds the key to renewing political parties.

    I think Alan’s got something here, and I suspect Dissenter is right. Party people should have a roundtable discussion on all this stuff and dare to think radically and innovate on the established routines.

    There are issues of strategy; media relations; channels / methods of communications; grassroots engagement; policy consultation / development which should be reviewed.

    The parties that embrace change faster will be more successful than those who do not… hopefully that race will be more watchable than the one to see who could publish their manifesto the slowest!!

  6. Even from the media perspective, it’s very risky putting all your eggs into one four hour basket. It becomes a little random which one catches the media’s attention and becomes the lead story.

    Whereas distributed events offer a better way of at least focussing attention on the fact you’re discussing a particular issue – even if it’s a big ragged at the edges and not everyone’s “on message” – but at least you’re seen to be tackling it.

    The parallel with PCI’s General Assembly is that over the course of four days, report after report talks about great things that are being decided and implemented and discussed – but at most, one topic per day will get attention in the media and hence leak out further than the ministers and elders in the hall. Whereas if some of the reports had separate launches in the weeks coming up to the Assembly, they could be explored in more detail, in a context, by people who wanted to engage with them, and then be re-presented if necessary to the full Assembly.

    (Obviously my personal thoughts!)

  7. […] a comment » I thought there was something of interest in the comments section of a previous post. The original post was on the UUP conference but it expanded out into a wider discussion on policy […]

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