By Marcus Leach

Over this coming week Fresh Business Thinking’s corporate insider will be reporting back on all the workings of the Liberal Democrat party conference, this year from Birmingham.

As a first time corporate observer, our person on the inside will keep us updated with all the gossip and most importantly the insight into the Lib Dem conference. This time from a small business (SME) perspective.

Sunday 18th September 2010

The Liberal Democrat autumn conference this year is being held in Birmingham. Traditionally the Liberal Democrat conference was only a precursor to the autumn conferences of Labour and the Conservatives. It was attended by the party faithful who would vote on all policies, and relish the chance of upsetting the leadership, should they deem the leadership was going against the liberal grain.

But since coming to power in May 2010, the Liberal Democrat Conference has seen a rise in attendance; these are mainly Tory and Labour lobbyists that used to ignore the Lib Dem side show in favour of the more established parties.

The other guest that the Lib Dems are seeing more of now is the corporate guest, of which I am one. I got here Sunday night and checked into one of the many hotels in the area. My advice if you are thinking of coming is book in advance and get a hotel near the conference hall. You should avoid staying in the conference hotel, it is overpriced and the late night drinking at the bar means a good night's sleep is hard to get.

Instead, I used the time to review my agenda for tomorrow. As a corporate day guest Monday was to be a full day of discussions with senior Lib Dem parliamentarians, ministers and advisors.

I used this time to do a bit of research on who I would be meeting, 'googled' their photos and found out their portfolio responsibilities, constituency and what they looked like. If you are an SME coming to a conference it is important to do this homework, to make sure you are speaking to the right people.

Monday 19th September

Up early this morning and took myself off to the conference venue. I was told that the security was tight, but necessary given the potential for a trade union protest today. It never materialised.

So after navigating security and being padded down and the contents of my bag searched, I was allowed into the conference venue.

Having paid £800 for a corporate day pass as well as £550 for a two day corporate observer pass, I was feeling slightly anxious as to what I had paid all this money for.

We got into the corporate day hall and I was surprised by the variety of guests there. There were people from major banks, retailers, trade and member associations, private individuals and SMEs.

We were given a welcome introduction from the Chair of the Corporate Day, who ran through the agenda. It would be a welcome address and Q&A with David Laws, followed by two panels in which we would hear from a number of senior ministers, such as Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Chris Huhne Environment Secretary, as well as the Director- General of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI).

All discussions were held under ‘Chatham House Rules’ so I can’t divulge what they covered, but this allowed an insight into the key ministers, whose portfolios impact on business. Being able to engage with them was very useful.

Following the panel discussions we moved to the main hall where Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, delivered his keynote speech. Whilst it didn’t say anything new, or paint a blue sky horizon for business, it was straight to the point, and something that business has come to respect from Dr. Cable.

He promised tougher action on bankers' pay, poked fun at News International and promised tougher action on those that do not pay their fair share of tax. It is important to remember that Cable comes from the social democrat side of the Lib Dems.

After this it was lunch where we heard from one of the senior directors at Ebay UK. At this lunch you sit with a number of advisors who again are all engaging and seem interested in your views and willing to continue engagement further.

The most useful part of the day came at 3pm when the round table discussions began. These panel discussions are very useful as they give you 30 minutes of face time with ministers and senior advisors. I had been told to identify the advisor I wanted to engage and had prepared in my mind a line of questioning with the view of further engagement with their department in the future.

What struck me from the whole thing was their willingness to engage and proactively hear from you. It was quite reassuring, especially when they are often criticised for being insular and unapproachable when in Whitehall.

The day ended at around 5pm but with a handful of business cards and follow ups needed to push my business aims, I was happy. Not a bad day for a first timer!

Tuesday 20 September 2011

After a very lackluster breakfast at my hotel, I set off to the ‘Fort Knox’ that once was the ICC to begin my second full day at Lib Dem conference. This time it was to attend the numerous fringe events that are held.

These events are held by NGOs, business and membership associations. They are all documented in the conference guide and worth reviewing. They are usually 45 minutes to an hour long and are either panel discussions or receptions. They are perfect for both networking and further insight, as usually the speakers are ministers and senior business leaders, heads of charities and NGOs.

I earmarked, the CBI reception, Centre for Cities and the Prince’s Trust. I hope to use these events for networking and hope to make some inroads with the policy influencing community.

Also, I will catch Chris Huhne’s speech, which has already been trailed in today’s press. Mr. Huhne, never one to avoid controversy, will launch a broadside against the Tory rightwing. I expect it will be a good show, so will be in the hall early to grab a front row seat.

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