Those were the days, comrades

I, in common with hundreds like me, repaired to the Central Hall, Westminster, for the opening day of the 73rd Annual Conference. I shall not voice the deep hurt I feel that it is not Blackpool this year, not the lovely elegant Winter Gardens we all of us know so well, and no pier, neither, as far as I can see.
Alan Coren, Golfing for Cats (Robson Books, 1975)

Lonnie Donegan played the Labour Party conference in 2000, enlivening the traditional Labour North evening for up-country MPs. It was a resolutely Old Labour event, with flowing beer and clouds of tobacco smoke. Marjorie Mowlam, the cabinet office minister, introduced the king of skiffle and a jolly time was had by all.

Me not least, given my newspaper’s financial section, for which I worked, would despatch two or three of us to the main party conferences. And in contrast to the twice-yearly Group of Seven/International Monetary Fund gathering where, as economics correspondent, I would be expected to perform, the conferences were fairly relaxed for me – if a story came my way, fine. If not, no matter.

Those were the days.

I would use the time to try to catch up with people, not least Treasury types and their backbench opposite numbers on the relevant select committees. Frequently, such contacts had packed diaries and could squeeze me in only for a quick morning drink in a hotel bar.

One valuable tip I was given was that if you’re meeting someone at 10am or thereabouts, drink stout, rather than anything else. It goes down nice and slowly, with a built-in pace-yourself facility.

As you may have gathered, my memories of a dozen years of party conferences are somewhat impressionistic. There was, for example, a stay in a Bournemouth hotel that, a plaque declared, had been the childhood home of Tony Hancock. My two Financial Mail colleagues and I added our own comic touch in that we managed during the course of the conference to come and go without once bumping into each other.

I was up in Blackpool in 2005 for the Conservatives’ pre-leadership election conference. I arrived after the main business of the day, and my brother (there in a technical capacity) and I went for a curry, vaguely aware that David Cameron had made a decent fist of his conference speech. Back at my hotel that night, I found, pushed under the door, a professionally-produced colour ‘front page’ from the Cameron campaign, reporting the speech under the headline: ‘He’s on a roll.’

So it proved.

In the heyday of Tony Blair’s ascendancy, I recall Brighton being turned virtually into an armed camp. With the Tories miles from power, Blackpool, one year at least, was not only much more relaxed but almost charmingly old-fashioned. Two young girls chatted to mounted coppers and patted their horses, an air cadet in uniform whizzed past on a bicycle and, once you got behind the seafront hotels, all security precautions vanished and normal life resumed.

I think it was the same conference at which the bell was tolling for the then leader Iain Duncan Smith. Looking round the bars and lobbies, it was not difficult to distinguish us hacks from Tory Party activists. The former were glad-handing, drink-buying and introducing each other (‘This is Sian from S4C, come and meet Terry from the Daily Mail’). The latter were parked in armchairs, staring out to sea, sunk in gloom.

It must have been an odd time to be a Tory. Three leaders came and went without winning an election. Would-be leaders came and went as well, such as Kenneth Clarke and Michael Portillo. I saw the latter speak at the conference when shadow hancellor. It was a good speech, but I formed the strong impression that talk of his ruthless, single-minded ambition was wide of the mark.

By the by, his spell as Gordon Brown’s shadow was not without achievement. It was he who first proposed what we now call the Office for Budget Responsibility, an independent fiscal watchdog.

Meanwhile New Labour seemed invincible, although not above a certain touchiness, no doubt justified. I recall one conference dinner when, waiting for Tony Blair to make a keynote speech, a fellow hack from another paper was having his ear bent by a female political figure.

He explained afterwards that she had the hump because his paper had reported her, as he delicately put it,  ‘engaging in practices proscribed by the book of Leviticus’.

‘Eating shellfish?’ I replied. ‘Naughty lady.’

‘Not that sort of practice, you idiot.’

A final memory is of winning, for the first and almost certainly the last time, a wine-tasting competition, at an event at a Labour conference in Brighton. The event – ‘New Labour, New World Wines’ – was a perennial, but had been spiced up this year with the addition of the aforementioned competitive element.

I correctly identified the mystery wine as a New Zealand pinot noir. How? Well, shortly before the conference, we had held a tutored wine tasting in the office, including inter alia…you guessed it, and I recognised the taste.

Why were we holding a wine tasting in  the office? To choose the departmental wines, of course.

Those were the days.


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