The same old scene The much-heralded ‘new politics’ won’t lead to a change in tone over conference season cusations that recess is one long holiday for MPs. We have pointed out before that this is simply not the case. Focusing on a constituency and the enormous amounts of casework does not signal a vacation. The spotlight should not always be on the Houses of Parliament.
Conference season should see a temporary holiday spirit among the major parties. The Conservative conference will adore its first address from a prime minister since 1996. Instead of the siege mentality which has marked recent conferences, Labour will be able to welcome a new leader who will hope for a honeymoon period, with a looming backdrop of the government’s spending review. But the only major party that may be less than adulatory in its greeting will be the Liberal Democrats. In Liverpool discipline looks like it will be tight, although the party runs the most ‘democratic’ of conferences in terms of allowing dissent.
It doesn’t do a party any good to be seen to be falling out at this point. Although the seaside has been left behind as party conferences move to Britain’s big cities, the ‘new politics’ should not lead to changes in the traditional conference season.
What conference offers is a change to the weekly diet of Westminster business. The first experience of a conference is often an odd one, where politics appears to be conducted at hundreds miles an hour, in the bland surroundings of a conference centre and nearby hotels. But it works because it is the one time each year when parties find their member
“Party conference works because it is the one time each year when parties find their membership, key players, and various hangers-on can come together in one heaving mass”
ship, key players, and various hangers-on can come together in one heaving mass.
For all its faults, conference season is different and unique, and even when a party feels in dire straits, conference is a refuge. This year, though, the major parties will be in optimistic moods. The conferences should be a reminder of what each party really repre
This is for a couple of key reasons. The first is the set-piece opportunity which conferences offer. It is true that the modern conference is a tightly run occasion with increasingly little room for party members to have a direct voice. But in an era when political speeches are not listened to enough, the orations of our political leaders remain important opportunities to remind the party of their personal value and worth. That in itself is a reason to remember why conferences are earmarked on the political calendar.
The only threat to the build-up to conference season is the decision to resume September sittings in Parliament. But this does not detract from the need for the party leaders to talk to their own parties and attempt to gain some crucial momentum for the autumn. Both Cameron and Clegg need to remind and reinforce to the Conservatives and the Lib Dems why they are in coalition, and the new Labour leader needs to reassure a movement that they can supply hope, comfort and electoral credibility. The leaders’ speeches will be thrilling occasions.
The second is what party conferences add to political life. The September sittings are, in part, a reaction to ac-
sents. As one-off set pieces, conferences provide a yearly reinvigoration. While the location may change, the content of a party conference remains significant.
From leaders leaving office to new leaders arriving: Andrew Hawkins in his column on p10 examines how party leaders enjoy honeymoons. His lesson is that it is far easier to enjoy a significant honeymoon with the electorate when the changeover occurs in government as opposed to in opposition. Ironically, considering his difficult tenure, Gordon Brown managed to build a significant poll boost when becoming PM. The new Labour leader will take over with just under a month before the coalition’s spending review is announced on 20 October, and a matter of days after announcing the new shadow cabinet. The spending review will be the first real test for the new opposition frontbench. If the new Labour leader can’t build up a real period of polling success, they may be in for a long, hard struggle.
8 | Total Politics | October 2010 Jon Sopel Conference season in the city Increased security and a new conspiracy
How many diary pieces at this time of year have started with: “As politicians prepare to pack their buckets and spades…”? Well, not this one. For the first time in decades there will be no autumn trip to either Bournemouth, Brighton or Blackpool for the party conferences. Big cities are in (Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham) – and gaudy seaside is out. And I, for one, will be mourning the passing of the Liberal Democrats into government. The Lib Dems used to be the most relaxed – no Ben Gurion airport-style security, use your proper conference pass if you fancy, but the game would be to find how many other passes you could wave in front of some elderly volunteer to gain admittance: your BBC pass, your blockbuster video card – even your Caffé Nero loyalty card. So no buckets and spades, just three weeks of emptying pockets, electronic arches, and giving your place and date of birth – all for the right to listen to some windy speeches. I suspect it might be a little bumpy for the party in Liverpool. A friend tells me that she was talking to her Liberal Democrat voting parents the other night, and they were expressing horror at the coalition. “I didn’t vote Liberal Democrat,” the mother angrily said, “so they would end up in government.” Curious. And there was me thinking that’s exactly what you used your vote for. A conspiracy theory. In Cornwall there is a pile of Tory/Lib Dem marginals – David Cameron decides to eschew abroad and holiday there. How very convenient for his wife to go into labour while there and give birth a suspiciously short time after contractions started in Truro. Oh – and this is the killer – how doubly convenient that Sam Cam’s obstetrician was also on holiday in Cornwall at the time. Really. Throw in a Cornish middle name for the baby and it’s clear she was induced on the orders of Tory High Command. All we need is the paper trail leading inexorably back to the party chairman. This could be right up there with NASA faking the moon landings, MI6’s murder of Princess Diana and the US government being behind the attacks on the Twin Towers. The summer has seen another of these mega smash-and-grab raids on upmarket jewellers. This time on an arcade I had never heard of in the city. But I want to take you back to one that happened a little earlier, across the road from Television Centre at the Westfield Shopping Centre. It produced a piece of spin that would make Alastair Campbell blush and Andy Coulson go puce. Millions of pounds worth of gems are stolen. The boutiques are ransacked. And I promise this is the quote from Francois Delage, chief executive of De Beers: “This is an unfortunate incident but it is yet another reminder of the timeless allure of diamonds.” Francois – if it doesn’t work out in diamonds for you, there’s a career in government waiting. As I write this, the International Cricket Council are deciding what to do with the Pakistan cricketers caught up in the News
Alastair Campbell blush and Andy Coulson go puce. Millions of pounds worth of gems are stolen. The boutiques are ransacked. And I promise this is the quote from Francois Delage, chief executive of De Beers: “This is an unfortunate incident but it is yet another reminder of the timeless allure of diamonds.” Francois – if it doesn’t work out in diamonds for you, there’s a career in government waiting. As I write this, the International Cricket Council are deciding what to do with the Pakistan cricketers caught up in the News
“Throw in a Cornish middle name for the baby and it’s clear she was induced on the orders of Tory High Command”
of the World sting. Spot betting is new to me. Do people really bet on when a no-ball is going to be bowled. Why? Without corruption it is a totally unknowable, random event. The punter – whether on the Grand National or the date of an election – surely likes to think their study of the form book has given them special insight. Which reminds me of the lobby briefing when John Major was PM and Norman Lamont was chancellor. The PM’s spokesman told us it was going to be a shortish speech. Well, under an hour. What an innocent. Did he have no idea that there has always been a betting market on that? Joy it was to be a lobby correspondent that day to walk straight from Downing Street – not back to the Commons – but straight round to the bookmakers to fill our metaphorical boots. I hate Asil Nadir. Let me qualify that. I hate the fact that he has returned from his bolthole not looking a day older than when he left. I, on the other hand, went into the BBC newsroom the other day to find teams of young producers laughing at archive film reports from 17
years ago of a young political correspondent looking nothing like he does now. Anyway, I am not going to let the buggers get me down. Maybe I’ll give the conferences a miss this year and head off to Northern Cyprus to find the elixir of youth.
Jon Sopel presents the Politics Show on BBC One and is one of the lead presenters on the BBC News
October 2010 | Total Politics | 9