Page last updated at 16:37 GMT, Thursday, 25 September 2008 17:37 UK

Conference guide

Party conference season has kicked off with the Liberal Democrats in Bournemouth. Here is your guide to the next three weeks of political action.

WHAT IS A PARTY CONFERENCE?

It is an annual event where MPs, MEPs, local councillors and ordinary party members gather to debate and vote on policies and listen to speeches. It is the one occasion in the year when political leaders come face-to-face with ordinary party members. Traditionally, conferences were all about forming the policies that would go in the next election manifesto. But in recent years they have become increasingly stage-managed events aimed at gaining positive media coverage.

SO WHAT IS THE POINT OF THEM?

Conferences can still provide moments of genuine surprise and drama. Many a political career has been made or broken by a party conference speech and the debates at fringe meetings and in the main hall are normally lively and well-attended. They are also an opportunity for the party faithful to spend three or four days debating policies, catching up with old friends and partying.

WHEN ARE THEY HAPPENING?

The Liberal Democrats are in Bournemouth from Saturday, September 13, to Wednesday, September

Labour will be in Manchester from Saturday, 20 September to Wednesday, 24 September.

The Conservatives will be in Birmingham, from Sunday, 28 September to Wednesday, 1 October

WHAT IS DIFFERENT THIS YEAR?

There is no need to pack a bucket and spade. With the exception of the Lib Dems, the parties have all abandoned the seaside and moved inland. So no more pictures of windswept politicians staring out to sea.

HOW DO I FIND OUT WHAT IS GOING ON?

The BBC will be providing full coverage on radio, the News Website and Parliament channel. The Daily Politics, on BBC Two, will also be live from each of the three big conferences and there will be a half hour Today at Conference programme every evening, with Andrew Neil.

HOW IMPORTANT IS CAMERON'S SPEECH

Unlike Gordon Brown who was under pressure to save his job at the Labour conference, David Cameron just has to make sure he does not blow it. We will know if he has decided to play it safe if he retreats behind a lectern for his big end-of-conference speech on the Wednesday. Why do a "look-no-notes" special if you do not need to? He will also want to avoid appearing triumphalist. No one in the party wants a Sheffield Rally scenario - when Neil Kinnock effectively blew his chances of becoming PM by holding a victory party before polling day. But with the sort of lead the party is enjoying over Labour, some Tories may not be able to help themselves. The bars of Birmingham could be echoing to the sound of champagne corks popping.

CAN I ATTEND A PARTY CONFERENCE?

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





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