In this blog, Lisa, Policy and Advocacy Manager at the AHA details her experience of attending party conferences sober, and considers wider questions about alcohol in the workplace and Westminster.
Earlier this month, I attended the Liberal Democrat, Labour and Conservative party conferences to represent the Alcohol Health Alliance and talk to attendees about what is needed to tackle the crisis of alcohol harm in the UK.
I remember the first time I ever went to a political party conference. Scrap that. I remember *some* of the first time I went to a party conference. Any attendees will know that they tend to be very alcohol-driven events in the political calendar.
This year, however, was a very different experience for me. Not just because this is my first year attending the party conferences on behalf of the AHA, but also because I am nearly 3 years sober, and this was the first time I attended party conferences as a non-drinker. Here are 5 things I learned…
1. Alcohol is everywhere, alcohol-free options are not
From raffles with prizes of bottles of wine, to boozy lunches, and chatter of how much was consumed last night, you couldn’t go anywhere at conference without being confronted with alcohol.
Even at fringe events, where the ‘meaty’ policy discussions and debates take place, a range of alcoholic beverages were frequently on offer. Although this could raise questions about drinking while at work – this is a professional conference after all – for me the issue was not that there was alcohol being served, but that there was a distinct lack of anything else. Water was often the only non-alcoholic option.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with water, but the lack of thought given to any other options assumes that everyone will want the alcohol. This short-sighted catering choice ignores anyone who might not be drinking for a myriad of reasons, but it was frankly also boring and uninventive.
I recall the frustration of being squished into the back of a room at a healthcare policy event. White and red wine were the only options aside from water, which quickly ran out as the room was so hot. Not very ‘health-y’ for a health event.
Three people die every hour from alcohol in this country, costing our NHS almost £4bn a year and our wider economy about £27bn a year. Ironic then, that although the NHS and ‘preventative healthcare’ was a central theme at all three party conferences, alcohol was pretty much on tap the entire time.
2. Alcohol-free options could create a healthier work environment
It is very hard for people to make healthier choices when those choices either do not exist or are not easily (and cheaply) available.
Party conferences are expensive. Particularly for those who are not funded by an organisation or employer to attend. Many people go to catered events because it saves them spending extra money. So, if those events are catered with an abundance of alcohol, and almost no alcohol-free options, it’s not rocket science what many might choose. It’s the free option every time.
There were at least two MP staffers who told me privately that they wanted to avoid alcohol to remain professional at work. But said that it was almost impossible to maintain that choice when so many events were built around alcohol.
If party conferences can’t provide a working environment where people can make healthier choices, then they are simply setting people who want to make those choices up to fail.
3. What diversity and inclusion?
Political events like the annual party conference should reflect the societies they serve.
This means fostering a diverse and inclusive environment for all. This not only makes the event more productive and effective, but more enjoyable for everyone. Unfortunately, all three conferences fell short.
By centring so many of the events and spaces around alcohol, without providing adequate alternatives, those who may not want to drink alcohol can feel excluded. This creates a barrier for people to network, participate and achieve the goals of why they attended conference in the first place.
4. Stigma still exists
Although the sober and sober-curious movement is growing, I was unprepared for the level of stigma that is still directed at those who don’t drink.
When I tweeted about the lack of alcohol-free options at conference, comments ensued where I was accused of being boring, a fun sponge, nanny statist, a party pooper – the list goes on…! Throughout my recovery I’ve become good at deflecting this kind of judgement, but if you were newly sober or attending party conferences sober for the first time, it is easy to see how somebody could be derailed by the judgements of others.
This stigma doesn’t exist in other areas; alcohol is the one drug in this country that you feel the need to excuse NOT taking. It is a cultural problem, and it is alcohol specific.
5. There is support for change
Despite the challenges described, we met plenty of people who wanted things to change for the better. We also heard many personal stories at our exhibition stand from people who had been negatively impacted by alcohol, whether that was through losing family members or friends to alcohol, or through being in recovery or choosing not to drink themselves.
We talked with medical professionals who told us the immense pressures alcohol harm puts on frontline services. Treatment providers told us how much their treatment budgets had declined over the last decade. Councillors voiced their frustrations at growing problems in their local areas with alcohol, desperate for ways to tackle it.
It’s clear that there is a growing audience of people who want to see change. Not just a change in culture and alcohol-free alternatives at these events, but for changes in public policy that address alcohol harms across society and improve the status quo.
I’m so proud that I succeeded in attending party conferences sober. But I also find it sad that it is something that I should be especially proud of. That it can feel such a difficult task to accomplish, that there are so many obstacles in people’s way to do this successfully, shows just how much our work cultures and events are still built around alcohol.
The Westminster drinking culture is long-standing and widely accepted. In fact, it is still permitted for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to take an alcoholic drink into the House of Commons chamber to consume whilst delivering their Budget statement, and just last week the parliamentary watchdog’s fifth annual report was released, highlighting that the ‘culture of drinking in Westminster’ was a ‘frequent factor’ in incidents reported to their Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme for Parliament. This begs the question of how serious policymakers are willing to take alcohol harm on a national level, when the problem is so widespread in their own workplace, and at their own party conferences.
For Westminster to show much-needed leadership on this issue, perhaps introducing a wider range of drink options to ensure that there are alcoholic AND non-alcoholic options on offer at future party conferences, would be a good place to start.
Written by Lisa Erlandsen, Policy and Advocacy Manager at the Alcohol Health Alliance.
This blog was published with the permission of the author. The views expressed are solely the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Alcohol Health Alliance or its members.