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What’s the point of party conferences? “A lifestyle, not just a season”: how autumn became a product

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How they work and what happens at them.
Party conferences are often referred to as the Glastonbury of the political calendar. Sad though it sounds, there is some truth in it. A lot of people go, and they’re very messy. (Plus, to many Westminster types, they’re an exciting social occasion – and far away on the train.)
Every UK party has an annual autumn conference, where their members and politicians go to discuss the state of the party and its future. Each one works slightly differently, but all are covered by the media and result in policy announcements (and, with any luck, massive rows).
But what actually happens at these dry looking events in wet seaside towns, and why should you care?
Location
Historically, party conferences have been held in seaside towns – for cheap accommodation. While Brighton and Bournemouth are still part of the circuit, big cities like Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool and Glasgow are the main hosts. They’re not in London because, well, every other political event is in London and party conferences are ostensibly for party members to get a chance to meet and listen to their politicians unfiltered by the press.
This leads to enjoyable scenarios, like Conservative party conference clashing with Birmingham uni freshers’ week, when you see 18-year-olds in torn Carnage t-shirts and old bald men in lanyards in equal measure queuing up for the same clubnights.
Delegates
Party conference delegates are ordinary party members who pay to attend. They receive a pass and access to all the speeches by politicians in the main auditorium, as well as the conference fringe (see below). Delegates get to vote on policy motions they put forward in most parties’ conferences – apart from at Tory and Ukip conference, where they mainly bray or boo to register their mood.
Labour, Tory, Lib Dem and SNP conferences last for longer than a weekend, so many working party members have to take days off to attend the full conference programme. Green and Ukip party conferences are usually over a weekend.
Lobbyists
Lobbyists – ie. everyone with an agenda from the European Azerbaijan Society to the Campaign for Real Ale – send their public affairs teams to most party conferences, in the hope that their stands in the exhibition space (see below) or drinks receptions, dinners and panels that they put on will influence policy-makers.
Journalists
Journalists descend on party conferences to cover everything that happens on stage and behind-the-scenes. They all get conference flu.
Speeches
Most of a party’s key players get to make a speech in the main auditorium. This is good for the members, because they are given the chance to see their beloved politicians speak in the flesh, rather than through a TV clip or print interviews. It’s also good for the politicians, because if they have career aspirations, these are the people who will be voting for them in leadership contests to come.
The conference stage can also be a place where rising stars are born. In 1977, a 16-year-old William Hague famously spoke at Conservative party conference, and was touted as one-to-watch from then on.
Motions
Delegates at all party conferences but Tory and Ukip get the chance to put motions forward, and vote on policy decisions and rule changes. It works differently at different conferences, but for Labour, delegates get to vote on motions proposed by constituency parties and unions, and policy proposals formulated by the party’s National Policy Forum.
Exhibition space
A big echoey room full of stalls and stands set up by all the interest groups attending conference. Similar from conference to conference, except Labour has unions where the Tories have tweed merchants (no, really).
All the free stress balls and biros a girl could ask for. But at what cost?
Fringes
The conference fringe is a schedule of panels, debates, speeches, drinks receptions and parties that are not part of the official conference agenda. They are organised by various interest groups and publications. These are mainly significant for allowing outspoken MPs a chance to air their views, and exhausted journalists and delegates to have a sandwich.
Some are within the secure zone – the closed-off party conference area only accessible to those with a pass – and some are scattered around the city or town where party conference is taking place.
Momentum now has its own big fringe in the same city and on the same dates as Labour conference called The World Transformed. This will be its second year.
Parties
Conference is a little like freshers’ week but with old men. Everyone’s rushing their work and going to as many drinks events and meeting as many people as possible. There are parties – some more exclusive than others – that happen within and without the secure zone, which are also a big source of news and hangovers for the journalists who prowl the circuit. Ed Balls can often be seen dancing, which, for some reason, everyone still thinks is hilarious.
The Wikipedia page for autumn confidently states that “one of its main features is the shedding of leaves from deciduous trees”. As a season traditionally associated with melancholy, it is unsurprising that for hundreds of years the most notable aspect of autumn could be succinctly summarised as “crunchy leaves”. But not anymore. Now autumn is characterised by the Autumn Leaves® Yankee Candle, the Lush Sparkly Pumpkin bath bomb, berry-coloured lipsticks, and the #PSL (pumpkin spice latte, of course).
A post shared by Anna (@ruby_jester) on Aug 21,2017 at 10:53am PDT
In recent years, the autumn market has exploded. Where once cold weather could lead to a lull in sales, businesses now make a fortune selling specifically autumn-themed products. In America, pumpkin spice can be found in everything from yoghurt to deodorant. In the UK, Christmas decorations are now preceded by autumn ones, with Sainsbury’s releasing a “ woodland walk ” series of cushions and candles, while Asda’s online “autumn catalogue” features a “ fox in a bell jar ” for £12.
Since 2014, there has also been a huge boom in people searching for “autumn lipstick” online. How did this happen?
“I just feel like some shops get into the spirit of it and some don’t,” says Britain’s premier lifestyle vlogger Zoella in her 2016 “ Autumn & Halloween Home Haul ”. To 1,397,933 viewers, she praises Asda for being “great” at “autumny” homeware (throughout the last few years, Asda has intermittently paid YouTubers to promote its Halloween products).
Bloggers, vloggers, and Instagrammers have undeniably been instrumental in the commercialisation of the seasons. At the time of writing, 40,372,228 posts on Instagram are hashtagged #autumn, and there are 1,730,000 YouTube results for the words “autumn haul”. Instead of just showing off new autumn clothes (after all, people have been buying A/W clothes since before most bloggers were born) these hauls showcase: acorn bunting, ceramic pumpkins, copper clocks, fake foliage, Halloween tea-towels, and clove, vanilla, and apple cider candles. Autumn is now so popular among social media stars, that one beauty blogger recently bemoaned: “I liked autumn when everyone’s favourite season was summer.”
“From about July onwards, my inbox is inundated with press releases for autumn and winter,” says Ellie Dickinson, a 22-year-old blogger who writes about beauty at www.lifeofelliegrace.com. Dickinson says the changing of the seasons can help with writers block, as it is “easy” to get involved in the trend. “It’s a good way to refresh your aesthetic as you can also rely upon stereotypical warm and autumnal colours to update your Instagram look,” she explains.

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