'The conference experience is to go home feeling that whatever interest brought you, it is worth doing for the rest of the year'

Party conferences are a bit like dentists' conventions or summit conferences, except that in Britain at least they are usually held by the seaside. I have never done a dentists' convention and have only been to one seaside summit that I can remember, at an unpretentious EU bash on the North Sea in Holland.

But they resemble summits (and dentists) in as much as things are going on at several levels. There are the formal proceedings on the conference floor, and the backstage dramas and negotiations, usually conducted by officials (the sherpas), not the principals. At meals and over drinks, as well as around the table, there is also face time as the major players size each other up and are sized up by those watching.

At Vienna in 1961, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev thought US president Jack Kennedy a pushover. Big mistake: it led to his defeat in the Cuban missile crisis. In 1986 in Geneva Ronald Reagan took to Mikhail Gorbachev, as Margaret Thatcher had done. It all helped end the Cold War.

So what has this to do with the party conference fringe in Blackpool, Brighton or Bournemouth? Or with the Health Hotel, which is fast becoming an important fixture of the political season? Quite simply the fringe is where business mixes with pleasure for all the parties, their activists and apparatchiks, their ambitious young thrusters, their policy wonks and old war horses.

Singular attraction

Over the 30 years I have known conference - they all speak of it in the singular - the fringe has grown enormously. It has become slicker and more professional, more fact-packed, less polemical. Sounds less fun? I suppose it is, but that is true of life and politics in general. Now most of us have pensions and plan to live long enough to claim them we eat, drink and misbehave so much less, even when the fringe meeting's sponsor is offering sarnies and wine.

This is partly where the Health Hotel comes in. All topics imaginable can be found in hotel basements, ballrooms or theatres during conference week. Delegates and representatives (the preferred Conservative word) can learn a huge amount and see party stars - past, present, future - close up. They can hear experts of national or local renown and cross-examine them.

Of course, the star events still tend to be those where some leading party rebel, denied a spot on the rostrum in the main conference hall or denied the topic he or she wanted, will sound off at the leftwing Tribune Rally - held in the Dome at Brighton or the Baronial Hall in Blackpool's Winter Gardens.

That has always been Labour's way. The Tories used to go in for more coded battles, elegant lectures sponsored by the Conservative Political Centre, which reporters would interpret next day.

But ever since Thatcherism started breaking up and Europe became for some Conservatives what the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament had been for Labour - an ideological passion over which to have fun and lose elections - their fringe has got wilder too.

Hezza, Geoffrey Howe, later Normans Tebbit and Lamont, all rampaged on the fringe.

Of course, the party leadership hated it. Ever since the Chicago police clashed with protesters at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 - Vietnam was the issue - they have realised voters enjoy seeing mayhem at party conferences, but do not vote for mayhem-soaked parties. That is why US conventions are stage-managed to death.

I have attended a few, including the one where a boring young governor called Clinton made such a long, awful speech that the only applause line he got was when he said 'finally'. Bill learned a valuable lesson that night in 1988 and four years later he was president.

At home the Liberal Democrats struggled to look more interesting than they usually were, except in years when a party leader was on trial for conspiracy to murder (Jeremy Thorpe), quarrelling with David Owen (David Steel) or on the skids (Charlie Kennedy). Labour's problem was the other way.

In the late 1970s into the early Bennite 1980s its conferences were like an Eisenstein film of the Russian revolution - The Storming of the Winter Gardens, that sort of thing. Only when Neil Kinnock took over and started restoring order did they embrace the lesson of Chicago: dull is good for votes.

In the old days Tory fringes were lunchtime only. The evening was for fun: face time plus G&Ts and dinner. But from the moment Mrs Thatcher was ditched the Tories were heading in the Bennite ideological direction, which is why they still keep losing. David Cameron's attempt to sanitise the conference includes putting experts from the conference fringe, even non-Tory ones, on the main platform.

As a result the fringe must constantly reinvent itself. The Health Hotel is one form. There are always health events dotted around the seafront. Why not bundle them up into one location, wheel on willing sponsors from the private sector (no shortage of cash there), link up with a think tank or three and become a brand?

Old habits

From where I sit it has worked very well. I attend Health Hotel events to learn and watch, I chair them, I even sit on panels occasionally, although I find myself asking questions of fellow guests: the reporter's ingrained habits.

The other year in the Health Hotel I subjected myself to a series of tests: blood pressure, height, weight, body mass. It had a terrific effect and changed the way I think and my eating habits for several days. That is what the conference experience is for: to listen and learn, but also to meet old friends, make new ones and go home at the end feeling that whatever interest, amateur or professional, brought you to the seashore is worth doing for the rest of the year.