Blackpool, the town that's too old Labour for New Labour

The worker's party has been coming to the worker's playtime capital since 1924. But Blackpool has fallen from conference favour. Is nothing sacred?
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It is probably the biggest insult to a British town since the dying King George V offered his view of Bognor Regis to weeping courtiers by his bedside. It is the most spectacular snub to an English conurbation since John Betjeman directed the bombers of the Luftwaffe to try the airspace above Slough. Not since Pompeii disappeared beneath a carpet of molten lava has a famous city been so comprehensively drenched in implicit rebuke. We're still digesting the implications of the news that the Labour Party is deserting Blackpool.

On Monday, the party will hold its last annual conference in the Winter Gardens of the Cloth-Cap Riviera. It probably won't be back. In spring this year, the National Executive Committee received presentations from the tourist authorities of Blackpool, Bournemouth and Brighton, discussed their requirements for accommodation, pricing and "facilities" and issued a crushing decision: Bournemouth in 2000, Brighton in 2001, Blackpool thanks but no thanks. The party doesn't actually rule out returning to the Golden Mile once the town has smartened itself up a bit. But they're only being diplomatic. Frankly, Blackpool just doesn't suit any more. It's just so not New Labour.

The worker's party has been coming to the worker's playtime capital since 1927. Their enthusiasm for it outlasted the war years. MPs, trade unionists, delegates and attendant journalists established a rich biennial tradition: meeting at the Winter Gardens, staying at the Imperial, toying with a glass of draught champagne at Yates's Wine Lodge, flooring pints of Boddingtons at Thwaite's, eating seafood at Robert's Oyster Bar on the Promenade, dancing with their lady wives to Reginald Dixon on the mighty Wurlitzer at the Tower Ballroom, frightening themselves on the vast switchback ride called "The Big One", and watching the massed hordes of the proletariat driving very slowly along the prom and gawping at the Illuminations. Simple pleasures, but honest ones. Blackpool was the natural choice of venue to celebrate the grass-rootsiness of the Labour faithful. It briefly turned Labour MPs into pint-of-wallop-and-a-portion-of-chips men - plain dealers and humble democrats discussing unemployment in the Empress pub, rather than smooth-talking Parliamentarians examining the menu in Rules or the Gay Hussar in the effete purlieus of London.

Some will miss the old place. "I have many warm memories of Blackpool," says Clare Short. "After a late-night conference, there's nothing to beat the blast of the wind that comes off the front." "Blackpool is the most authentic gathering place for a party of the left anywhere in Europe," says Denis MacShane, Labour MP for Rotherham. "I always stay in small boarding houses and I learn more, in a week of breakfasts, about the heartbeat of the UK than in a month in the Commons." What did he like about it, apart from the conversational insights? "The food is cheaper than in the South, the landladies friendlier, and the presents for your children the most amusing in Europe." But the sea, Denis ... "And the water is far too cold for bathing," concludes MacShane, "so there's no need to risk our polluted seas. I've protested strongly to Tom Sawyer [General Secretary of the Labour Party, who took the final decision] about the switch to the south coast, which frankly is suitable only for Tories, Liberal Democrats and Guardian readers."

In 70 years, of course, the place has changed. Accommodation, for instance. "When I first started coming here," one veteran TUC man told me. "There wasn't an en suite bathroom to be had anywhere but the Imperial. Now it's difficult to find a hotel room in town that doesn't have its own bathroom." He was dead right. As you walk around, you have to get used to the words "All rooms en suite," even though (a) the phrase isn't strictly accurate (it's the washing facilities, not the room, that are en suite) and (b) in some of the less pricey establishments, it'll mean only an "en suite" handbasin. But even this evidence of posh modern-ness cuts no ice with New Labour's snooty conference organisers.

It can't be a lack of hotels that bothers them. Blackpool is stuffed with hotels. It's said to have more holiday beds than the whole of Portugal. Hotels are everywhere. They seem to have taken over from the normal commercial infrastructure of a seaside town. There are hotels instead of shops, hotels instead of private houses, hotels instead of markets, hotels instead of pubs, hotels instead of (or masquerading as) restaurants. You start to suspect that, if you ventured inside the church, you'd find a landlady with a huge bust and an equally formidable attitude problem, standing arms akimbo and asking what time you call this to be coming in for your tea.

As you move into town, or drive along the promenade towards up-market Lytham St Anne's (where you can order real carrot cake in the tea-room, and there's a whole shop devoted to Le Creuset oven-to-tableware), the hotels gradually get scaled down. From the sprawling hall of residence that is the super-modern Stakis Hotel (currently the clued-up delegate's top choice) and the imposing Victorian pile of the Imperial (home of the immortal Number 10 bar, itself the seat of a thousand scenes of late-night intrigue and drink-fuelled prostrations), you move down the architectural- taste scale to the seafront specials, where hotels - the Lyric, the Seafield, the Oakwell - occupying the width of three houses offer views of the revolting Irish Sea through a single windowed frontage. Further along, you drive past the Blackpool Pontin's holiday camp, with its ranks of ticky-tacky chalets in pastel pink, pale green and off-biscuit like a Toytown graveyard. Even when a soft Southern git like myself has made the necessary mental adjustment to the quality of life in Blackpool hotels, it's still impossible to imagine how any human could want to spend five minutes here. ("Of course it's been recommissioned now, as a boot camp for young offenders," I was told. "And you know what? They didn't have to change a thing to make it penal rather than recreational...")

Further into town, you find smaller hotels, bearing names with no special resonance of comfort of luxury: the Rhoslyn, the Tobermory, the Oakleigh. Through the windows you can see people sitting down for their evening meal at 5.30pm, prior to a night out on the strip, looking for fun. To get to the interior, the secret heart of town, you must walk though the alarming backstreets, mostly avoiding eye contact with demented-looking out-of-towners who stand bewildered on the street corners, as if uncertain whether to cross or stunned by the loveliness of it all. In Kirby Road, the hotels have shrunk to skinny terraced affairs - Coral Dene, the Dalton, the Tremar - where the lettering is falling off the faded "Licensed" sign, but there are still, mystifyingly, "En suite rooms available". Down the road from the Munch Box cafe, there's an awning-covered market, where you can buy crotchless knickers, scrunched up inside little transparent plastic eggs, for a quid. There's a tasteful photograph of what they look like, on. The more adventurous can go for an All-Lace Sex Suit (also a quid, making you wonder if it can really be the finest quality lace, from, say, Bruges, or is actually just made of black string).

A whiff of sex hangs gamily over the whole street, pungent as biltong. Impetuous lovers can make use of the Springbok Hotel, one of the few genuine self-declared knocking shops I've seen: it advertises "One-Nighters Okay" and "Just for Adults - Couples Only" above an ideogram of a chap and girl running along holding hands. The flat fee (for - what - an hour's stay?) is pounds 10. And sex is by no means the only thing on offer. The hotel boasts an "All-nite license", in the middle of which, they suggest, you may like to break off and "Try our famous 3am curry". No wonder taxis in Blackpool all carry a special notice along the lines of: "SOILING this vehicle through FOOD, DRINK OR SICKNESS. A pounds 20 CLEANING FEE will be PAYABLE to the DRIVER."

Blackpool may have appealed to generations of Labourites as the road of excess which, according to William Blake, leads to the Palace of Wisdom. Some speak wistfully of the good old days when things were more spectacularly awful. "I remember a place called the Park House Hotel," one MP told me, "which was legendary, really quite fantastically awful. I never stayed there myself but friends would tell me how, to get to their rooms, they had to climb over drunken members of staff who had simply collapsed in the corridor when they couldn't find the way to their rooms". Now, locals complain about the place with a low-level whine of dismay. "I took a chap from Bosnia round the South Pier area not long ago," said a lady at the station. "I'd met him when I was out in former Yugoslavia visiting my sister in the Red Cross. And really, as we walked about the town, it was so grotty I felt like apologising. I mean... to a guy who lives in a war zone..." "It's because nobody's spent any money on the place in years," said her friend, who lives in the Fleetwood end of the town. "All the available cash has gone on shoring up the sea defences".

Locals must feel aggrieved at the treatment they've been given by travel writers over the years. The American best-seller Bill Bryson came a-visiting in 1994 and wrote his findings in Notes from a Small Island. Though he'd lived in north Yorkshire for 17 years, he wasn't keen on Blackpool. He congratulated it on its pounds 250-million-a-year tourist industry, which was, he remarked, "no small achievement when you consider the fact that Blackpool is ugly, dirty and a long way from anywhere, that its sea is an open toilet, and its attractions nearly all cheap, provincial and dire". He was disappointed by the Illuminations - several miles of small, brightly-lit faces and cartoon figures hung on lamp-posts, some sponsored by McDonalds, some featuring faces from Coronation Street, some apparently taken from cereal packets - which he called "tacky and inadequate on rather a grand scale, like Blackpool itself". In 1995, Charles Jennings, a sneery Londoner who went to the same Oxford college as Tony Blair, poured scorn on the place in his book Up North: its size, its smell ("Blackpool is the first place I've been to where the whole town has halitosis") and its habit of bragging that every novelty bar and fish 'n' chip shop, every nondescript hotel and leisureplex is "world famous". He also noted the presence of two Gypsy Petulengros, both allegedly the original and authentic soothsayer, operating at different ends of town. Now, Mr Jennings would probably not be surprised to learn, there are five of them.

As you traverse the Golden Mile, taking in the howling penny arcades, the undifferentiated sweets 'n' gifts emporia, the vast, ludic inanity of the three great piers, the clanking, redundant trams, it's hard to feel that this proliferating neon junkyard will ever again be a fashionable venue for anyone except European documentary-makers truffling for grot. Blackpool's heyday was the second half of the 19th century, when they built the three piers and the Tower, when the sea was less toxically polluted and the beach became the playground of Lancashire's new industrialised labour force. Today, when seven days here amid the pong of candy floss, vinegar and cheap sex will cost you the same as a sunny week in the Greek islands, the city hoteliers and fun impresarios have to supplement the falling-off of business where and how they can: the DSS pay for unemployed and homeless people to be put up in guest houses; the local free-sheet, Blackpool Visitor, has a one-page guide "For the Less-Abled Guest". It has become a short-stay destination, a Friday-to-Monday pounds 50 burst of folly by people with a severely foreshortened idea of a good time.

With diligent hunting you can find some worthwhile bits of Blackpool - there's a handsome and friendly pub called the Washington in Topping Street, September's Brasserie on Queen's Square has a menu full of marinaded trout and bison casserole at which even Derek Draper couldn't turn up his nose, and the Grand National on the South Pier Pleasure Beach is undoubtedly the most terrifying train ride in the history of the universe. But the town's status as the vacational paradise of the working man seems more and more irrelevant to the pretensions of New Labour. Like the sea that crouches and creeps a mile from the promenade and never seems to get any nearer, the Labour Party will keep a close eye on Blackpool for its symbolic identity as the proletarian heartland - but without wanting to roll into its clanging streets and urinous, chip-festooned doorways, ever again.