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!

  • lamhdearg

    nice piece alan.

  • alan56

    Good story

  • I can’t take credit for the original idea …

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    But why not charge bloggers?
    I would be mighty upset if I discovered you were at SDLP conference for free and I had to pay £15 :)……especially as I am usually quite nice to them.
    Presumably the hotels factor in that there would be some good bar takings or poor bar takings..
    Or would there?
    Charge the DUP and TUV twice the going rate.
    Give the SDLP and UUP a discount.
    Let SF in for free.
    Give AP money to use the hotel. 🙂

    Are journalists charged? They should be.
    If they are not charged, then why charge bloggers?.
    If only some bloggers are charged, why do others get in free.
    Clearly the SDLP owes me £15.

  • aquifer

    Better to just give the parties money instead of laundering it through public corporations. I have no problems paying for politics, wars are much more expensive.

  • DC

    Ah the taxpayers, they have a tendency to create a form of externally applied dynamic. For instance, I wonder how many would turn up to conferences, or meetings, or committees without a lunch, a freebie, a goodie here or there, or who would dare attend a City Council civic meeting without a nice free dinner or evening meal with drinks?

    Certainly not the great and good.

    There is something slavish about this and rather domineering as well to have such a bunch, a political cohort waited on and served and paid for by the taxpayer. It’s all a bit servile, all this serving the great and good.

    So raise a cheer for the good old taxpayer, it is the taxpayer that supplies this nutritional and material dynamic, a process in and of itself, attendees don’t come for the content, but for the condiments – this is the momentum behind getting delegates in and out the other end of such meetings and conferences, the momentum to get through them with a degree of pleasure; and oh no, not just particular party conferences – but more generally – all committees and meetings etc.

    Even in the civil service to have someone scurry around with tea and coffee and to have it served up to low grade managers who have a sense of expectancy – all harks back to hierarchy and people knowing their place – and the taxpayers footing the bill, ad infinitum it would seem.

    Buy your own lunch and dinner and tea and coffee and serve it yourself!

    Here endith rant.

  • Pete Baker

    “Is this a good use of public money, ie our taxes?”

    Sorry Alan

    But I think you’re over-stretching the point here.

    For a start most of the organisations you list receive income from sources other than public funding.

    And the expenditure seems negligible.

    “I can’t take credit for the original idea …”

    I hope it wasn’t the Tax-payers Alliance…

  • DC

    Pete – don’t forget staff costs for such organisations attending as well and who do you think pays the staff costs, hmmm.

  • Pete Baker


    Well add it all up then.

    And don’t neglect the various sources of income of the different organisations.

    As Alan admits, “It’s for them to justify through their accountability mechanisms…”

    My BS meter is sounding an alarm.

    That’s all I’m saying.

  • The Raven

    Actually, DC, a (not so) long time ago in a universe far,far way, the *public* sector organisation I worked for just drew names out of a hat. No pay. No time off in lieu. I think that is quite common, actually.

    All these orgs have publicity budgets – whether it’s for a student fair, or a series of public information roadshows – or indeed a party conference. Sure, aren’t we remonstrating when we *don’t* see these folks out and about…?

  • As it’s in the party’s interest to get their message out, they don’t charge journalists to attend. And last year this was extended to cover “new media” who aren’t party members but want to turn up to discuss what’s going on. Over time, I suspect they’ll have to limit the numbers! While entrance is free, in nearly all cases, food isn’t. So it’s not a complete freebie.

  • So at a conference where several speakers proudly state that there will be no (residential) water rates for another X years, it’s ok for the under-invested NI Water to be paying to hand out freebies. Small scale, but multiplied up with the number of conferences, staff costs, promotional branding, cups of tea.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    I really did wonder about the accreditation of “new media”.
    Of course I did know that the established media is not charged. I merely posed the question to set up the bigger question of “bloggers”.
    Indeed rather like throwing a party and nobody coming…holding a party onference and no media showing up would be a bad sign. So the TUV and Workers Party must be delighted to see a journalist.

    And of course you are a “real” blogger witha degree of work behind you and I am more or less a spoofer. And no real ambition to be anything more than a spoofer. But it does bring up the question of where the Party draws the line. Having a Conference covered by a “real” blogger is of course good but how do they keep out spoofers? Charging one but not the other effectively means there are “two tiers” of blogging…..which effectively negates the whole purpose of Blogging.
    Effectively “real” bloggers” are now mainstream.
    And in order to retain access NEED to have clear water between them and the “spoofer”.

    But I think you over-state the problem of these stall holders at £150 or £300……certainly this is an innovation compared to my first ever Conference experience in 1973.
    And I think that “Help The Aged” (a stall to which I find myself increasingly drawn) and “The League of Cruel Sports” etc add something to a conference atmosphere. Yes including NI Water. They are at least a token that ordinary politics……does survive. The fact that they show up at DUP or Sinn Féin events is actually a good sign.

    But I worry about the question of accessability to Ministers and MLAs. I say it because of various experiences this year…having attended a few “events” by invitation….and the SDLP Conference and the Slugger event last week.
    I have noticed several of he same faces showing up..again and again. THere seems a sub culture of blogger/campaigner/ civic society which seems to have an inside track to get to have tea and vol au vents with Ministers, MLAs…….movers and shakers.
    They have access in a way that the ordinary voter (actually more likely to vote than some of these folks who are avowedly cynical) and even the ordinary party member who pays £20 a year to work for his/her party. I find that much more disturbing.

  • Last year, the UUP were quite proactive in inviting and encouraging bloggers to attend. How to avoid an avalanche and yet still be accessible might become an issue – though there don’t seem to be floods of nerdy people knocking their doors.

    Issuing some invitations and denying the rest could be very counter-productive too. Certainly the NIO seem to have settled on no-NUJ-card-no-access as the rule for events that they control.

    If the parties streamed the main conference hall online, then the event would be accessible remotely. Sinn Fein tried that at their Ard Fheis earlier this year – though technical gremlins stopped it working. I seem to remember ending up streaming the audio from my netbook!

  • DC

    The issue Raven is the dynamic that is applied courtesy of the taxpayer.

    Imagine if these groups weren’t there at say the DUP conference, but instead it was a bunch of elderly DUPES and say a few sparse private-sector stands – would there still be the *buzz*, minus freebies, food and other such spin offs.

    The is a form dynamic and momentum applied to the DUP conference (as it will be applied to the other parties out of parity I imagine) – and it is costly and largely unneccessary in my opinion, as such organisation have statutory responsibilities and can do their work inside the policy cycle and business network.

    But seriously I’m not really that fussed about party conferences, it is big civic dinners and minor hospitality in the civil service that irks me the most – as mentioned above.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Right Alan, the sensationalist headline is not backed up in any substancial degree by your article, although it might be just about technically accurate the implication that it is some sort of secret method of party political subsidy dosn’t hold up.
    In the real world the vast majority of political work is voluntary, with ordinary people giving up their time, money and skills to something they believe in, it is a very very small minority who have ever profited from the work they do, and in particular in NI political involvement can cost you as much as it benefits you.
    But you instead follow on in the best tabloid tradition of finding some obscure way of ensuring the armchair crusaders have an excuse to gripe about “our taxes being wasted”.
    There may well be real issues with government bodies & other organisations cosying up to politicians with “freebies” etc, but as the cost involved would barely cover 30 seconds of a UTV subsidy I think this sort of article is just cheap populism.

  • Never thought I’d be on the side of the Daily Mail!

    It’s not a secret subsidy – but I’m questioning the donation of £1000+ by publicly funded organisations at a time when they’re going to receive less funding.

    And there’s a tension between parties desiring increased numbers of exhibitors (to bring in revenue – and also add value to delegates) and the resultant (decrease) in valuable face time that exhibitors will get.

    There’s only a certain number of people that can squeeze past – and only a certain amount of time the party seniors can devote to touring, shaking hands and smiling for the photos. So more exhibitors = shorter conversations = less benefit?

  • Drumlins Rock

    lol, the tabloids have corrupted us all Alan, the sensationalist headline is hard to resist. To be honest havn’t been to a conference yet, but I might see you on Saturday, look forward to the freebies but doubt they will cover the cost of petrol to Belfast!

  • Alan, did you spot Belfast Harbour? Its directors are appointed by the Minister for Regional Development. Despite claiming to be apolitical it managed to give £20,000 to New York New Belfast, a project organised by the SF friendly Mairtin O Mulleoir’s Belfast Media Group.

    Contracting arrangements – can’t write a [£20,000] sponsorship cheque to Belfast Media Group and need an apolitical solution.

    Party conference sponsorship would appear to be relatively small beer.

  • 2 frys 2 teas

    I attended the conference dinner and the main conference and it cost £50 for a combined ticket – saved a tenner!

    there was a good deal for staying over night done by the hotel but i couldn’t stay….

    so a fair old outlay – 4 trips up the M1 in diesel and the £50

    but well worth it

    stalls were very good and more of them than i ever recall – in fact more people than i ever recall – even the opportunity for some artistic driving in the generous snow covered overflow car park – tut tut… traction control is a oul cod be’times…

  • Eglise en Bois

    Firstly some of the “public bodies” named don’t take any tax payers money e.g. the GMC paid exclusively by Doctors,

    Secondly the Dinners, £100 each apparently for the DUP pre conference dinner, I hear the rest of the parties’ dinner are about £40 so if some strange funding arrangement thats where you shuld look, plus what access is given/promised/ expected for such payments

  • Am I right in thinking that Press Association didn’t attend the DUP conference? If so, and presumably it applies to other party conferences, it’s actually quite astonishing.

  • I though I noticed that when I flicked through the Irish News on Monday, their report of the DUP conference was by PA?

  • 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!

  • Drumlins Rock

    Good to see they are reading slugger Alan, to be honest my first thought when I saw some of the stands is WHY do they even exist, give a few of them some hassle, and actually got some good info from some, as well as a reccomendation to get my hearing tested! lol