The party conference season heralds the least productive element of my job. Attending them means - roughly - receptions, speaking at fringes, talking to anyone who will listen and eating too much and too richly.
All this while trying to do the day job at the same time - and finally spending even more time with people you see every week of the rest of the year anyway.
Not unenjoyable or uninteresting, but the effort against reward never quite seems worth it. It's like flying to Rome for an hour of reasonably good quality gossip over an espresso and then coming straight back.
So why do it? Well, because everyone's there. Powerful people gather in large numbers in order to talk and listen to people who normally have to fight for access to them. Movers and shakers come to be schmoozed - and it works. Half a dozen quick conversations here and there at a conference often achieve more for my members than a year of formal meetings, correspondence and working through the official channels. Finally, it is at conferences that you can pick up the signals that affect the people you represent.
Deciding where to go and how much time to spend is more a gut feeling based on your sense of where power lies now or might be going in the future, or both. This is obviously an art not a science, but my time commitment this year might say something about my gut feeling at the moment. TUC - did not go, did not watch on the telly. Liberal Democrats - four and half hours on the road, two hours there. Labour - five hours on the train, spent the day. Conservatives - three hours travel, stayed overnight.
Heart of debate
Health is always at the heart of the programme, both for the conferences proper and their fringes. However, there's been little real controversy so far this year. Perhaps only the Lib Dems' Vince Cable's manager-bashing announcement caused a modicum of heat. His plan (in case you missed it) is to get public sector managers earning over£100,000 a year to "reapply" for their own jobs, take a pay cut and lose pension benefits.
No-one on his team can have suggested to him that one of the problems facing strategic health authorities and primary care trusts might be the under-payment of directors. And certainly no-one seems to have told him that the essentials of his bold new policy have been implemented by the health service every two to three years for most of the last two decades - most recently with Commissioning a Patient-led NHS.
Perhaps that is why I'd be pushing it if I said my phone melted with angry chief executives demanding war. But there was a fair degree of surprise and disappointment at what Cable had said. Not least, I think, because it was Cable himself. With his solid display of skill and understanding on Northern Rock and the ongoing financial crisis, he has built a strong reputation and huge credibility among people across the political spectrum. Health service managers expected more and better from someone like him. But it turns out he is just the same old politician facing an electoral squeeze chasing populist headlines. Hey ho.
Cake or death
But overall managers have been fairly indifferent and even amused, because it is the Liberal Democrats who are delivering a personalised attack on public sector managers. What would it be like in practice, this tough guy policy implemented by Lib Dem ministers? "Make 'em beg for their jobs, public service scum!" demands health minister wearing nose stud and pink hair? Personally, I think of Eddie Izzard's imagining of what the Anglican Inquisition might have been like, had there been one. His vision was of apologetic inquisitors with poorly developed upper arm muscles hanging limply by their sides while offering heretics the choice of "tea and cake or death".
On more serious reflection, however, the Cable plan delivered at his party conference is a kind of signal for healthcare managers. Even the Liberal Democrats think it's okay to have a pop and use the imagery of "frontline hero" versus "backroom bureaucrat". The leadership of this party is clearly wrong to think managers in the health service are not part of the frontline healthcare team. Nor does it appear to understand modern healthcare is about the management of complex team delivery. But we should think about why a party that has been traditionally supportive of senior public servants can now feel comfortable attacking them.
One answer - that most politicians simply don't know any healthcare managers and therefore feel free to attack them - was suggested by one thoughtful and articulate Lib Dem MP with whom I shared a fringe platform. Jenny Willott (Cardiff Central) compared her relationship with the senior managers of her local police force and local health services. She made the interesting point that she knew and kept in touch with dozens of senior police officers covering her constituency and knew a lot about their operational problems, strengths and weaknesses. In contrast, she knew exactly two NHS managers - one a chair, the other a chief executive.
So this is one signal I've picked up in this year's conferences. Politicians need to hear from and get to know local health service managers. Getting to know them will make it harder for them to attack us (with the full support of most of the media). The lack of formal accountability of the service to local politicians has meant managers have no tradition of keeping in touch with local people who have influence nationally. Political work has often been left to a handful of very senior managers or the confed.
In 2005 an NHS chief executive asked me if it would be right to accept a private dinner invitation from the new Conservative leader, who wanted to understand the health service better. To avoid doubt, if asked to dinner by your local MP, say yes! And if no invitation is forthcoming, ask them. Vince, dinner for two?