The Liberal Democrats are in Glasgow having their annual party conference – which means that for the next few weeks, each political party will enjoy some time in the glare of the media spotlight.
It’s an attractive proposition for a party: get a room, fill it with people who support you, and tell them what they want to hear. It’s a soft audience, a guaranteed good reception, and (in British politics anyway) probably the only opportunity in your diary to say what you want without being interrupted by a dissenter. For some politicians, it’s the only chance they have of an unalloyed standing ovation.
And there’s the rub: with each conference carefully stage managed, it doesn’t take much for the focus to shift onto the voices in the wilderness. The story will always be about the anecdote that defies statistics, like a 99-year-old chain smoker or a black swan. This year, once again, it’s Vince Cable.
The Coalition presents an irresistible opportunity: you can remain completely loyal to the party and still criticise the Coalition partner. This might make the leadership uncomfortable: being at the top of this government has sometimes looked like hanging onto the reins of a chariot being pulled by a carthorse and a show jumper, but the party faithful love it. All parties have seen membership shrinking, so there is a real bunker mentality to some of these events – particularly in the LibDems, a small party that is currently losing votes and support. From the outside, keeping everyone on-message can look a little paranoid – which is why journalists love it when Vince Cable suggests, say, pulling out of the power-share six months before the election. At last, they think, something to write about that isn’t just a re-wording of a press release!
It isn’t often you can make such a big splash, and in conference season, everyone has the means motive and opportunity to get some profile – but here are the rules:
• balance short term notoriety with long term career security, unless you don’t think you have a career or are planning an assault on the top job
• ore senior people will get more coverage for less controversial comments
• mean what you say – or expect to be reminded of your promises when you don’t keep them
• a conference is a small pond. Don’t confuse it for the ocean.
Keep these in mind next time you’re watching conference coverage – and ask yourself how this applies to your own industry event.
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