Sometimes it can seem that politics dominates the television and radio all year round. Whether it’s to promote new policies, coverage of important debates, or even the latest resignation of a compromised member of the Cabinet, it’s a rare occurrence for news bulletins not to carry political content.
However, every Autumn it can seem more pervasive than usual. That’s because it is the time that the political parties hold their annual conferences.
Politicians, the media, activists, protesters and lobbyists descend onto cities across the UK to debate, argue, network – and occasionally it’s been known, in the late night bars, fight – with one another. The Forum is also there, although not part of any brawls.
The conferences can mean a great deal to both MPs and attendees. Yes, it is a chance for them to communicate with their grassroots. More importantly – and increasingly – it is an opportunity for widespread discussion and debate of emerging, innovative policy proposals. In fact, in recent years the number of party members attending has declined, whilst the number of organisations has increased. This directly reflects the importance placed on party conferences as an opportunity to debate issues at the highest level of politics.
The Forum takes an active part in the conferences. In the past we have run our own debates with Secretaries of State and held meetings with politicians and prospective candidates of all parties. We are often asked to contribute panellists for other debates too. But is it worth the time?
Simply put, yes. It gives us the opportunity to meet with key decision makers outside of the confines of Whitehall, where the mere presence of civil servants can sometime stilt an honest discussion. It allows us access to new ideas as well as putting forward our own. It also maintains our ongoing dialogue with policy makers on the issues that matter to you our members, from the cost of compliance and employment and skills to late payment and bank lending.
It’s true that conferences are not without their problems. Many cynics view them increasingly as revenue raising exercises and it’s certainly true that many multinational companies with more money than sense pay a hefty fee to sponsor a lanyard. Equally, you are not going to thrash out an innovative new policy in a conference hall of hundreds of people.
However, away from the main stage and set piece speeches there are literally hundreds of opportunities of engagement with the most senior politicians and with careful planning conferences is a unique opportunity to discuss pressing issues raised with us by members. As in previous years, that is exactly what the Forum intends to do this month.
This year we are jointly holding events at all three conferences and, together with other business bodies, are presenting a unified case to politicians that more must be done to help small businesses. Too often Whitehall initiatives are about catchy titles rather than the end goal of businesses feeling less regulated, or having better access to finance, or finding it easier to employ members of staff, and dismiss them when things aren’t working out.
That’s why we continue to view a presence at the Conference as of benefit to our members.