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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 October, 2003, 15:48 GMT 16:48 UK
Q&A: Party conferences
As the annual party conference season gets underway, BBC News Online takes a look at what the annual seaside gatherings are all about.

When and where?

Each conference lasts for about five days, with the Liberal Democrats kicking off this year's season in Brighton on 21 September.

A week later, Labour's conference will take place in Bournemouth followed by the Conservatives in Blackpool on 6 October.

Who gets to go?

Obviously the party leaders will be putting in a series of appearances, alongside their frontbenchers, backbench MPs and MEPs.

Leading lights from constituency parties, local councillors and, of course, ordinary members will all be arriving at their various seaside destinations.

Liberal Democrat conferences are made up of MPs, MEPs, peers, prospective candidates for both the Westminster and European parliaments and representatives of local parties elected for one year.

Labour's delegates are made up from Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs), affiliated trade unions and affiliated organisations such as the Fabian Society.

Conservative party members can all, in theory, go to conference having applied for a pass through their local associations or through one of the groups in the party.

What can delegates decide?

The Lib Dem conference has the power to decide policy and meets twice a year to vote on proposals drawn up by the party's policy committee.

Hague made name as 16-year-old
Constitutionally, Labour's conference is its supreme administrative body and has the power to accept or reject, but not amend proposals submitted by the National Policy Forum.

It can also debate emergency motions on contemporary issues and elect the leader and deputy leader of the party - subject to a fifth of the Parliamentary Labour Party submitting nominations for an alternative candidate.

But that does not mean that a vote that goes against the government will become policy.

In 2000 the conference voted to restore the link between pensions and earnings and yet that policy was never introduced.

The Tory conference does not actually vote on any issue and their delegates are referred to as "representatives".

Recently the conference has afforded members opportunities to raise concerns during a question and answer sessions with a relevant frontbencher.

What are the highlights of conference?

Keynote speeches from leaders and other senior figures are always a central part of conference and are sure to be focused on by political observers.

Conferences can also launch political careers, as former Tory leader William Hague found out when as a sixteen-year-old he wowed the Conservative conference.

Labour has managed to invite some fairly show-stopping guests in recent years including former US President Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela.

This year Afghan leader President Karzai was the star guest.

But some of the most interesting events happen at the fringe of each conference.

Open debate rather than political set-pieces rule the day and some of the real stories of the conference season can be found in dark, crowded rooms away from the glitz of the main hall.


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