Every autumn, UK political parties hold their annual conferences – gatherings of politicians, party members and affiliated groups, aimed at rallying support for the party. For all parties, conferences are an opportunity to raise revenue, connect with their membership and attract media attention.
Some parties' conferences also have constitutional significance:
- The Labour Party's rule book states that "the work of the Party shall be under the direction and control of Party conference." At Labour's conference, delegates from trade unions, affiliated groups and constituency parties put forward motions and vote on them, deciding the party's platform and policy positions for the year. The conference is led by the National Executive Committee, the Labour Party's governing body.
- The Liberal Democrats’ conference is their most important decision making body. All party members can take part in conference debates and vote on policy through a one member–one vote system.
- The Scottish National Party (SNP) conference is their supreme governing body, consisting of constituency delegates, MPs, MSPs, local councillors and affiliated organisations. The conference is used to elect their National Executive Committee and vote on key policy positions.
The Conservative Party does not vote on policy at their conference, instead focusing on keynote speeches by the leadership, and building connections with donors in order to raise funds.
Parliament usually enters recess for three weeks in autumn to allow parties to run their conferences. However, in autumn 2019, when the prorogation of parliament was suddenly reversed by the Supreme Court, MPs had to quickly return to Westminster on 25 September, interfering with the Labour and Conservative conferences. This year, all autumn conferences will be held online due to the coronavirus pandemic. There will not be a recess for conference, which means that MPs will have to fit virtual conference activities around normal parliamentary business.
The devolved Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties in Scotland and Wales hold their own conferences, usually in the spring. The Labour Party also hosts conferences throughout the year for different regions in England.
Party conferences attract a wide array of people connected to and interested in the party. This includes party members, politicians, activists, journalists and representatives from think tanks, trade unions, charities and businesses. The Labour and Conservative conferences typically attract around 12,000 attendees each year. The Conservatives also host a ‘spring forum’, with around 8,000 attendees. The Liberal Democrats and SNP host two conferences a year, in the spring and autumn, which each attract a few thousand attendees.
In recent years, the Conservative Party conference has alternated between Manchester and Birmingham. Labour’s conference has for the past decade alternated between Brighton, Manchester and Liverpool, where the 2020 conference was due to take place.
The Liberal Democrats host their conferences across the UK: past locations include Bournemouth, Sheffield, Glasgow, Cardiff and York. The SNP's conference is usually held in Glasgow, Edinburgh or Aberdeen.
This year, almost all political parties have announced they are hosting their conferences entirely online due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Conservative Party initially tried to plan a socially distanced conference but in July moved their conference fully online. They are now offering a virtual event from 3–6 October, with each day themed around a key policy area and Boris Johnson giving a keynote speech on the final day.
In May, the Labour Party announced it would cancel its in-person conference, instead hosting ‘Connected’ – a free online event for party members running from 19–22 September. Attendees will be able to watch speeches and panels, discuss policy and take part in training sessions and visit exhibition booths virtually. While the conference is usually used to determine party policy, this constitutional purpose will not be fulfilled at Connected.
The Liberal Democrats also announced in May that they would be holding their autumn conference online, from 25–28 September. Their online conference system will still allow registered party members to vote on motions and attend a variety of fringe events. Tickets cost £30 for members.
The SNP has not yet announced alternate plans for its 2020 conference, which is currently still scheduled for 13–15 October in Aberdeen.
Conferences are used to raise funds and to promote policy or outline political agendas to the party membership and the public. Both elements will be affected by the events not being held in person.
In 2018, party conferences raised £5.3 million for the Conservatives, £467,336 for the Liberal Democrats and £683,833 for the SNP. That year, Labour raised £4m in commercial income (which includes other activities alongside the conference). It is likely to be challenging for parties to bring in a similar amount of revenue this year without meeting donors in person, or being able to sell spaces to exhibitors and fringe event organisers inside the conference venues.
As regards policy, for the Conservatives, this annual conference will be the first since the UK officially left the European Union – the party's flagship manifesto pledge at the 2019 election. The upcoming conference is a chance for the prime minister to set out his priorities for the party’s ‘Global Britain’ and ‘levelling up’ agendas in the wake of Brexit and coronavirus.
Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour Party leader, has already had to cancel one in-person event, after a ‘special conference’ planned for 4 April to announce his party leadership election was called off due to coronavirus. The September virtual conference is therefore an opportunity for him to set out his vision for the Labour Party.
The Liberal Democrats are currently holding leadership elections, and results are due to be announced on 27 August. Their autumn conference will similarly be an opportunity for the new leader to engage with the membership and put forward their agenda for the party.
The SNP is likely to capitalise on recent polling showing increasing support for Scottish independence, to renew its calls for a referendum on the topic.
It may be difficult for parties to achieve these important functions, and also effectively network, fundraise and decide on policy positions without meeting in person. However, virtual conferences offer some benefits, too. While most still carry a price tag to access virtual events, they are far cheaper to attend than in-person events, which require spending on accommodation, travel and so on. In this way, online conferences have the potential to be more inclusive, and to attract larger, more diverse audiences.