Q&A: Party conferences

The autumn political party conference season is upon us. Here is our guide to them.

What are party conferences?

They are the annual events where MPs, councillors and activists from the parties gather to hear their political leaders give platform speeches, to debate and vote on policies, discuss political intrigue and party into the night with like-minded souls.

So what actually happens?

Ministers, shadow ministers, frontbenchers and other leading lights in the parties make keynote speeches in the main conference hall. Some grassroots members also get the chance to speak and vote in many debates. Away from the set-piece events there are fringe meetings - often in hotels near the conference centre - with more informal speeches and question and answer sessions. Party activists crowd the bars, restaurants, dinners and drinks receptions late into the night.

Where are this year's big three conferences?

The Liberal Democrats gathered in Liverpool for five days from Saturday, 18 September. Labour meet the following Saturday, 25 September, in Manchester, when they will begin their five day conference by unveiling a new leader. The Conservatives meet from 3 to 6 October in Birmingham.

Who goes to them?

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 decision makers. Virtually the entire Westminster press corps also decamps to the conferences.

Can anyone attend?

No. Security is tight and you must apply weeks in advance for a pass.

How big are the events?

Huge. Conservative and Labour conferences regularly attract upwards of 10,000 of visitors.

Aren't they normally at the seaside?

They used to be. But the trend now is to hold them in one of Britain's major cities. This is the first year that Liverpool has hosted one of the big occasions.

What difference can the conferences make?

The days when conferences decided what went in the next general election manifesto are, for the most part, gone although the amount of say ordinary members get varies between parties. Labour and the Lib Dems still hold votes on policy motions. For the big parties it is largely all about media coverage but a conference speech can still make or break a party leader or act as a springboard to a fledgling career. With so many journalists and politicians in close proximity they are also a great chance to plot and often set the tone for the next few months at Westminster.

What's particularly on the agenda this year?

It could be the most fascinating conference season for years. We will find out who Labour has elected as its new leader and the party is also holding elections for its shadow cabinet. It was the first time the Lib Dems have met as a party of government. Leader Nick Clegg had to make sure he had the party faithful onside amid some signs of unhappiness over the coalition's spending cuts plans. The Conservatives gather as a party of government for the fist time since 1996 but the coalition and the economic outlook mean the mood is unlikely to be too celebratory. Like Nick Clegg in Liverpool, David Cameron has the task of selling the benefits of being in coalition to his party members.

What about other parties' conferences?

Plaid Cymru, the UK Independence Party and the Green Party have already held their annual conferences. The Scottish National Party conference will be held from 14 to 17 October in Perth.

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