Who pays for party conferences? (Clue = taxpayers some of the time)

Party conferences are expensive. Occupying the largest halls and rooms within hotels for 1–3 days over a weekend. Catering for hundreds of people. Looking modern and sophisticated with stages, sets, sound and video. But is paying for it?

Many party members would say that they do. Their annual subscription to the party covers all kinds of costs. And the admission charge to attend the party conference (could be in the region of £10–25) covers their conference programme pack, food and refreshments (not all the time), as well as a contribution towards the conference hall and the seat they sit on. If they go to the dinner, it’s another £25 or more.

(In the DUP’s case, it would also have covered the little Union Jacks that adorned many of the seats and were waved so enthusiastically before and after Peter Robinson’s speech.)

But even with a full house 600 or more people squeezed into La Mon Hotel at the weekend, that wouldn’t cover the expense of the hotel, set, audio/visuals, etc.

Exhibitors play an enormous role and numbers are up. There are a lot more at this year’s conferences – in some cases, I’d say nearly double – than last year. One or two people standing beside a branded table. Usually some free pens, sample literature and a box of Quality Street to get people to pause at the stall and start up a conversation. This year there’s been a tendency for some exhibitors to offer fruit too.

Exhibitors can pay around £300 from £300 up to £600 for a table. Charitable organisations often get a discount, say 50%. (Cheap compared to Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat conferences.) A place at the pre-conference dinner could be £100. (Some exhibitors are quite upset about the huge disparity between delegates’ and exhibitors’ grub.)

Sammy Wilson at the Translink stand at the DUP party conferencePaying for a stand is really a pact with the party. Hand over the money and the party will promise to send their leader and senior politicians for a walk around the stands to allow exhibitors to get photographs taken with politicians, signatures of support for causes, a chance to lobby and inject some more facts into the buzzing heads of tired politicians and their advisers. (Working on a stand isn’t glamorous.)

It should be noted that some organisations have stopped taking a stand and just pay in as visitors to the conference, walking around and talking to the people they want to schmooze without being tied to an expensive table.

As an example, the DUP had over 70 exhibitors at their conference this weekend. Around two thirds would have been charities. But in amongst the campaign groups and charities (around two thirds of the exhibitors) were public bodies.

Public bodies receive public funding, from local NI departments and sometimes from central government too. (Many also generate additional funding and income through their activities.)

So you’re paying for …
Royal Mail stand at DUP conference

  • NI Water (reusable plastic water bottles – disclosure, I have one from a previous conference, and very excellent it is too);
  • Translink (whose little cardboard bus and train kits are quite cute);
  • Northern Ireland Consumer Council;
  • Older People’s Commissioner;
  • Royal Mail (who until recently used to hand out books of stamps – which was apparently handy in the run up to Christmas!);
  • Arts Council NI;
  • Queens University of Belfast (two stands at the DUP conference);
  • University of Ulster.

In order not to discriminate, most of these organisations will pay to attend the party conferences of the big five parties (SDLP, DUP, UUP, Alliance and SDLP – listed in the conference calendar order) and are thus held over a barrel when it comes to cost.

NI Water stand at DUP conferenceIs this a good use of public money, ie our taxes?

With the abundance of government in Northern Ireland – 3 MEPs, 18 MPs, 108 MEPs, innumerable councillors along with an Executive of 11 departments and committees eager to gather evidence, it’s hard not to conclude that politicians’ doors are always open for more targeting lobbying.

And if it’s members of the public they want to engage with, would a stand in few shopping centre, the Ideal Home Exhibition, the Balmoral show, or a National Trust property not provide longer and more meaningful conversations than the cramped surroundings of a party conference?

NI Consumer Council stand at DUP conferenceWhile I’ve singled out some names, I’m not trying to pick on any particular organisations in this post. It’s for them to justify through their accountability mechanisms why it’s cost effective and “achieves positive outcomes” to attend party conferences.

And I’m not picking on any parties. While the stand rates aren’t quite a cartel, I imagine they are broadly similar across the political spectrum. (If any parties want to share their number of exhibitors, charges for stands as well as pre-conference dinner prices, I’m happy to run a comparison table!)

After all, I wouldn’t want them starting to charge bloggers … one did briefly try last year.

Update – some of the exhibitors mentioned in this post defended themselves robustly when I wandered past their stands at the next weekend’s UUP conference!

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