As I boarded the train that would take me from Edinburgh to Preston last night, with a further connection to Liverpool, I reflected on the number of political party conferences I’ve been to over the years. Yes, this is the level of excitement in my life.
I didn’t bother counting, because it’s not that interesting, but it’s a large number and there was a time when – as a lobbyist for an airport company – I would go to one after the other, working my way from the Eden Court theatre in Inverness (SNP) to the seaside towns of Bournemouth, Brighton, and Blackpool.
If you’ve not been to one of these jamborees, they are curious, round the clock affairs. The mundane – some would argue important – business of party policy and democracy is done by day and then attention turns to the hotel bars and function rooms, where hair is let down, drink is consumed, and gossip traded – all as if there is no tomorrow. I remember meeting a senior Labour politician that I happened to know, outside a lift in the Grand Hotel in Brighton at 8am one morning. When she asked me how my day was looking, the truthful answer (which I did not give) was that I was going to bed.
Times have changed, for me certainly. With good reason, party conferences now command significant publicity and careful stage management. They are an important measure of a party’s competence and suitability to govern (if they can’t run a four-day conference, they surely can’t run a country etc) – and a powerful demonstration of unity and purpose, or the lack of them.
I watched the Conservative party conference from afar last week and I don’t think they passed one of those tests. Liz Truss was back – she doesn’t seem to have changed much – and Priti Patel duetted with Nigel Farage on a dance floor. I heard some political opponents – captivated by how bad it looked – wishing it would go on for a second week.
It’s Labour’s turn in the spotlight this week. On the face of it, things are good for the opposition party. They’re sustaining a compelling lead in the opinion polls and have just administered the mother of all bloody noses to the SNP in the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by election.
It feels increasingly likely that Keir Starmer will be the next prime minister, but as one Labour source told me this weekend: “Any tails up will be cut off and God help anyone who plays ‘Things Can Only Get Better’”. Hopefully this means some early nights, and I’m fine with that.
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