Proof of industry’s power is right under government’s noses

The news that the Conservative Party has struck a deal to host its annual conference in Birmingham in 2022, 2024 and 2026 is fantastic for the city.

The announcement came as no great shock to most observers. After all, the Conservatives have been holding their conference in Birmingham for more than a decade now.

However, the fact that the Tories can make an announcement like this and it not be a surprise just shows how much has changed in the last 10 years – and the sheer power of the conference as a branding tool.

For context, the Tory conference has alternated between Birmingham’s International Convention Centre (ICC) and Manchester Central since 2008. Before that, the conference had switched between seaside towns such as Bournemouth and Blackpool, taking advantage of cheap, plentiful accommodation in the off-season.

At the time, the Tories making the move to Birmingham and Manchester was a bold move – both are traditional Labour heartlands. I was living in Manchester at the time of the Conservatives’ first appearance in the city, and there was palpable outrage at the Tories having the gall to show their face in the city centre. Delegates were egged and high-level security was put in place to protect party members. What were the Tories doing in Manchester and Birmingham, people asked. Well, as it turned out, they were parking their tanks on the opposition’s lawn.

Just look at the numbers; in the 2005 general election (the last election before the Tories moved their conference to Birmingham), Labour won 24 of the total seats in the West Midlands and the Conservatives won just three. In the 2019 general election, they were tied on 14 each.

The Tories upped their share of the vote in the same period from 29.5 per cent to 44.4 per cent in 2019, becoming the most popular party in the West Midlands for the first time since 1987. And the party also sprung a shock when Tory candidate Andy Street won the inaugural West Midlands mayoral election in 2017.

In Greater Manchester there is a similar pattern. In 2005, the Tories took just one of 28 seats in the region, while Labour took 23. Compare this to 2019 when the Tories took nine Greater Manchester seats and Labour 18 – the Tories’ best performance in the region since 1992.

Now, there are many factors that led to these results, I’m not suggesting it is entirely down to the location of the party conference. But as a branding exercise, what it says about the party is unequivocal – we like your city and we want you to like us back. And the economic boost that a conference that size brings to a city – £20 million to Birmingham, says a best estimate – means that hotels, bars, restaurants will like them back.

Over the last decade the Tories have been to Birmingham and Manchester every other year and the reaction has turned from “What are they doing here?” to “Here they are again”.

And here we see the power of the conference. The way an event can win hearts and minds in the city where it takes place cannot be underestimated.

I live in Brighton, the city where the Labour Party conference has been held every other year since 2013. Traditionally left-leaning, it may surprise you to learn that when Labour started coming to the city regularly in 2013 it held none of Brighton’s three parliamentary seats. Every other autumn since then the party has had a presence in the city, so that residents have got used to the buzz of the conference around the Brighton Centre and the hotels on the front, seeing shadow cabinet members in the Lanes and on the trains, and all the fringe events that spill out into the bars and restaurants of the city. This presence has been rewarded with the party’s taking back of two of the three seats in the city. (The one seat Labour doesn’t hold is Brighton Pavilion, which is held by the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas.)

Again, here we see the power of the event – and the very real effects and legacies that can spill forth from placing a meeting in a particular place.

At a time when our industry is struggling to get the recognition it deserves from government, it’s important that those in government be made to see what is under their noses. Conferences and meetings matter. Those in government have profited from the power of conferences – it’s about time we started seeing some recognition of this.

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