Party conference season: Everything you need to know

Twenty months away from the next general election, this year's clan gatherings will be crucial. We break down the elements

Greens

Brighton

13-16 September

What's on the agenda?

Just one major policy motion – on the future of Britain's railways – plus speeches by party leader Natalie Bennett, Caroline Lucas (the only Green MP) and Pippa Bartolotti, the Welsh Greens leader.

What's at stake?

At a time when voters are turning away from major parties, the Greens should be generating more interest. They will have a battle to cling on to Lucas's Brighton Pavilion seat in 2015.

Who will shine?

Leader Natalie Bennett, an Australian, has an interesting back story: she's an ex-rugby player and Guardian journalist. There's an aura of fresh air about her.

Who will struggle?

Pippa Bartolotti is one of the more controversial Greens: two years ago she questioned the "loyalty" of the UK's ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould, because he is Jewish.

Key moment?

Caroline Lucas may well get the crowd going with her tales from the Balcombe anti-fracking protest camp.

Will anything be as exciting as the time when...?

OK, so we can't recall anything exciting that's happened at a Green Party conference. Perhaps a Ukip-esque gaffe or two will get them a bit more noticed?

We need to talk about...

Squabbles at Brighton and Hove council, and an attempted coup against the joyfully named council leader Jason Kitcat. There's a huge row between the fundis and the realos.

Lib Dems

Glasgow

14-18 September

What's on the agenda?

Conference theme: "Stronger economy. Fairer society". Debates include land reform, tax support for business, UK economy and future strategy, the Union, protecting the vulnerable. "Clarifying" debates on nuclear power, tuition fees and planning issues including fracking.

What's at stake?

Plenty. Where the party should position itself as 2015 approaches: centre-left or right? Labour-friendly or remaining Tory coalition-loyal? Hard look at role in government and the pull between realism and old idealism. Start of the "apology trail" in advance of the election.

Who will shine?

Ed Davey, the Energy Secretary: praise (and some condemnation) as he backs civil nuclear power. Vince Cable's speech on a fairer tax system is an anticipated highlight. And Nick Clegg: love or loathe him, they'll support him. No option now.

Who will struggle?

Danny Alexander is in line for a kicking over his role in Trident's retention. The Liberal Left, led by Linda Jack, wants Clegg to put space between the party and George Osborne's economic policy. He may not oblige.

Key moment?

Government's handling of the Syria crisis a potential flashpoint – if backstage efforts to keep it buried in the long grass don't succeed. March to the Clegg-led centre ground could turn the economy debate into an infant-class tantrum for some.

Will anything be as exciting as the time when...?

Previous conferences (in Scotland anyway) backed the legalisation of cannabis. But the party's all grown-up now. Or is it? Political realism demands a full-on show of support for Clegg. But any public display of coalition disquiet will be pounced on.

We need to talk about...

The 20 years when the party, by its own admission, made "mistakes" that seriously let down its women members. The report into the Lord Rennard scandal, and allegations of sexual harassment which he has strenuously denied, will be the subject of unofficial debate.

Ukip

Westminster

20-21 September

What's on the agenda?

A breathless tour of every key political issue over just two days, but ample time for speakers to get agitated over pet issues: defence, immigration, HS2 and, of course, the "cost of the EU". Ukip will also mark its 20th anniversary.

What's at stake?

Maintaining the momentum of recent poll gains in the run-up to next year's European elections, and the general election in 2015.

Who will shine?

Party leader Nigel Farage always steals the show, but energetic deputy Paul Nuttall will make three appearances; and Ukip will showcase prospective candidate Express political commentator Patrick O'Flynn.

Who will struggle?

MEP Godfrey Bloom has continued to try the party's patience, condemning UK aid to "Bongo Bongo Land", describing David Cameron as "the sort of chap I used to beat up" and making deeply offensive comments about women and condiments – all in the past two months.

Key moment?

Farage's speech, on the first morning. Always a barnstormer, but this year he might start setting out Ukip's position on co-operation with other parties at the next general election.

Will anything be as exciting as the time when...?

Eighties DJ Mike Read declared last year: "The moment is imminent. Our time has come." And there was the controversy over a decision to auction off a lion's skin in aid of party funds. It could only come from Farage.

We need to talk about...

Former Ukip MEP Marta Andreasen, who defected to the Tories this year, saying: "Unfortunately, [Ukip's] leader treats any views other than his own with contempt."

Labour

Brighton

22-25 September

What's on the agenda?

The full agenda is still being thrashed out, but proceedings will be dominated by sessions on the economy, welfare and foreign affairs, notably the prickly issue of intervention in the civil war in Syria.

What's at stake?

Barely 18 months out from a general election, Labour has to start looking like a government in waiting, rather than an opposition waiting for the Government to fail. With the economy improving, Labour members are looking for signs of leadership from Ed Miliband; a few new policies would help.

Who will shine?

Shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, Rachel Reeves, back in the front line after the birth of her first child, has been cranking up appearances in the run-up to conference. A critical figure if Labour is to win economic credibility.

Who will struggle?

Ed Miliband. Unions, an improving economy, the press, frustrated activists and unions again: after a couple of years of relative calm, the pressure is on. At least brother David won't be there.

Key moment?

Unquestionably, Ed Miliband's speech. Always trailed as the most important speech of his leadership, but this time, with vultures circling in connection with the union link and election preparations, he must restore flagging confidence.

Will anything be as exciting as the time when...?

David Miliband looking silly while holding a banana? Give his brother a piece of fruit and anything could happen. Otherwise, expect pictures of Ed Balls playing footie.

We need to talk about...

Relations with the unions. The row over the rush to review the historic link in the wake of allegations that Unite "rigged" the selection of the Labour candidate in Falkirk has been escalated by the official finding that, er, no rules were broken. Miliband will need to explain himself to union barons and activists who fear he is drifting from the heartland.

Conservatives

Manchester

29 September-2 October

What's on the agenda?

Sessions on: Britain in the global race, "helping people to get on", "for hardworking people" and one on "doing the right thing" – no, not an interview with Spike Lee but speeches covering the economy, home affairs and the environment. Conference opens with a tribute to Margaret Thatcher.

What's at stake?

David Cameron's relations with his party, after he failed to carry all his MPs with him on the government vote on Syria. The grassroots are looking for a sign of true-blue Tory policies that they can use to win the next election outright.

Who will shine?

Traditionally, Boris Johnson has been the star turn, upstaging the party leader. But his appearance on the main platform on Tuesday may be overshadowed by Ukip's Farage at a fringe meeting.

Who will struggle?

Will there be new ministers getting to grips with their briefs? Beyond Johnson, there are no names in the conference agenda, only titles (even Cameron doesn't get a name check, only "Prime Minister"), suggesting that a pre-conference reshuffle remains a strong possibility.

Key moment?

Cameron's speech. His parliamentary tactics over Syria left him looking weak at home and abroad. He has turned his fortunes around at this very moment in the past. Can he do it again?

Will anything be as exciting as the time when...?

Ten years ago, when plots abounded and Iain Duncan Smith addressed Blackpool as Tory leader for the last time. Will there be leadership plots afoot in Manchester?

We need to talk about...

Europe. MPs want to discuss it, and the issue dominates the conference fringe, but don't expect it to feature strongly in the main hall or in Cameron's closing speech.

Plaid Cymru

Aberystwyth

11-12 October

What's on the agenda?

All things Wales: including the curriculum, improving the economy, planning, and the Welsh language. Even a debate on an independent Scotland in the context of "the future for Wales".

What's at stake?

Consolidation of Plaid's position at forthcoming elections, but also relations with Labour, which rules in Wales despite not having an overall majority.

Who will shine?

A big curtain call for Helen Mary Jones, who is standing down as party chairwoman "to concentrate on my career and my family for a while".

Who will struggle?

South Wales Assembly Member Bethan Jenkins, cleared following a complaint that she claimed back the cost of a hotel stay after attending a Rihanna concert in Cardiff, but it was a bruising episode.

Key moment?

The "An Independent Scotland and the future for Wales" debate on the final day. Plaid must decide between its usual "gradualist" approach and an SNP-style push for independence.

Will anything be as exciting as the time when...?

The Great Leader's Speech Joke of 2011 (something about divorce from Labour and "both parties citing the unreasonable behaviour of Peter Hain)? Probably not.

We need to talk about...

Independence. Plaid leader Leanne Wood believes strengthening the economy is the key to allaying fears over the viability of an independent Wales.

SNP

Perth

17-20 October

What's on the agenda?

Whatever the formal agenda in Perth, there will be only one talking point, one battle to win: the 2014 independence referendum. There can be no public talk of losing or fallback positions.

What's at stake?

The clan gathering is about finding out why voters still inhabit the unconquered grey area between emotional nationalism and dispassionate unionism – and making them deliver.

Who will shine?

The whole roll call of great Scots, except those, such as Sir Alex Ferguson or J K Rowling, who don't fit SNP purposes. Star turn? First Minister Alex Salmond – unchallengeable.

Who will struggle?

Those who want an open debate about fallback positions in the event of a no vote next year. That isn't seen as pragmatic politics. Perth dissenters will be pointed to the equivalent of SNP Traitors' Gate.

Key moment?

The entire three days; every speech that mentions the referendum and freedom, freedom and the referendum, voting "yes" in the referendum, and how the referendum will be won.

Will anything be as exciting as the time when...?

Any new negative opinion poll, showing falling support for independence, might provoke some to call for an end to Perth's theme-park freedom show. But don't bank on it.

We need to talk about...

Look, what Scotland talks about should be our business… interference from Westminster will end in September 2014. That's all we need talk about.

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