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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 September 2007, 17:50 GMT 18:50 UK
What happens at party conferences?
As politicians, activists and the media head to the seaside for the annual party conference season, here is our guide to what goes on at these events.

What are party conferences?

They are annual events where MPs, MEPs, local councillors, policy advisors and ordinary party members gather to debate and vote on policies, hear their leaders speak, swap gossip, discuss the latest intrigues and party into the night with like-minded souls.

So what actually happens?

The main event for the media and party members tends to be the big set piece speeches by the party leaders. There are also debates on party policy. The parties have increasingly tried to inject excitement by inviting high-profile guest speakers, which in recent years have included Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton for Labour and US Senator John McCain, for the Tories. Away from the main hall there are fringe meetings - often in hotels near the conference centre. These are more informal sessions, normally with a panel of three or four speakers debating a topical issue and taking questions from the audience.

Where are this year's big three conferences?

The Liberal Democrats are first, meeting in Brighton from 15 to 20 September. Then Labour will be in Bournemouth between 23 and 27 September. And Blackpool is hosting the Conservatives, from 30 September to 3 October.

Who attends party conferences?

It is more than just politicians and party members. At each conference there is a huge exhibition hall where business, industries and other groups have stalls and use the opportunity to raise their profile and lobby political parties. Virtually the entire Westminster journalist corps also decamps to conferences.

Why are they always at the seaside?

They aren't. The parties are increasingly turning to big cities in the north of England and the Midlands. Last year's Labour conference was in Manchester and the Conservatives will stage their 2008 gathering in Birmingham, before visiting Manchester in 2009 and 2011.

How many people go to conferences?

More than 17,000 people were in Manchester for the 2006 Labour conference, while the Conservative event attracted more than 10,000 party activists.

Can anyone go to a party conference?

Security is very tight and entry tends to be restricted to party members, exhibitors and the media who must seek accreditation.

What difference can the conferences make?

The extent to which party members and delegates have a say varies between the parties, but it is no longer the case that party members can vote through a policy which the leadership is then obligated to include in their next General Election manifesto. However conference performances can still make or break a leader.

What's on the agenda for Labour this year?

All eyes will be on Gordon Brown's big speech on the Monday, amid speculation he could use it to announce a general election. The prime minister is also likely to face grassroots pressure over public sector pay, calls for an EU treaty referendum and criticism over his attempt to tighten control over the conference agenda by banning emergency motions.

What about the Conservatives?

David Cameron will be attempting to use this year's rally to prepare his party for a general election, whenever that comes. He will also be eager to draw a line under recent battles between left-wing and right-wing factions - and reconcile the different ideas from his policy groups. California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger will join on a live link from the US after political commitments ruled out a personal appearance.

And for the Liberal Democrats?

Sir Menzies Campbell will be looking to reassert his authority after a tough year. The biggest test will come on the Tuesday, when the conference debates his new tax proposals. Climate change also features heavily on the Lib Dem agenda. The guest speaker on the Monday is the president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso.

What about other parties' conferences?

Plaid Cymru were staging their annual event in Llandudno between 13 and 15 September, while the Scottish National Party conference will be held from 26 to 28 October in Aviemore. The Green Party conference is being held on 13 and 14 September. The UK Independence Party is holding its annual gathering on 5 and 6 October.

Where can I find out more details?

The parties' websites have full details of the agendas, and there are links to these on the right of this page.




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