It's been ever so warm in Blackpool
Talk, drink, talk, drink. Amid sausage rolls in the Winter Gardens and egg and bacon in the B&Bs, new Labour has been gleefully grooming itself for government. Polly Toynbee watched from the sidelines as Tony got unctuous
Friday 04 October 1996
There is a curious collective chemistry at work in party conferences. The journos sniff the air, they glance at one another, feel the pricking of their thumbs and in a mutual spasm a myth is born: a great speech! Though by the standards of any sane human discourse, it was an awful speech, unctuous, disingenuous, peppered with phoney religiosity, dreadful homilies, footballing metaphors, homage to people and things we all know he rightly feels scant respect for (Jack Jones, the Spanish Civil War, Sam McCluskie) and misusing things he probably does feel strongly about (his father's stroke, Dunblane and his poor wife, bidden to provide a particularly nauseating public kiss). Well, it may require the holding of fastidious noses, but so be it: it got the Sun and the Mail salivating, so history is written and history says it was a noble speech.
For in the fetid political air of the Winter Gardens there is such a powerful will for him to win, it infects even the right-wing press. Who knows on the eve of the election which way those fickle winds will blow, but now the gust is in Blair's sails, blowing hard behind him.
That much the people will have discerned from this week's news. But despite the excessive coverage of the conference, the punters see little of its fevered inner life on their sanitised television screens. For in the cavernous rococo lunacy of the Winter Gardens, all is talk, drink, talk, drink amid a cornucopia of rock-hard sausage rolls, dry pork pies and flabby Mighty White sandwiches.
This is the biggest, best, six-day party of the year. Everyone who is anyone and not a Tory (and some who are Tories) has to be here. The place hums with power-hunger and success-lust. Every organisation is here, clutching at the coat-tails of tomorrow's government. The stands that form strange labyrinthine corridors in the foyers cost up to pounds 6,000 each, making the conference a handsome profit. What on earth are Boots, Sainsbury's, the RAC or Luton Airport doing here? Why are charities such as the NSPCC wasting their hard-earned pennies? Even the British School of Motoring has a fringe meeting on "The Role of the Responsible Driver". The reason? It gives their bosses a thin excuse to be at the parties and the fringe meetings, rubbing shoulders, touching hems, revelling in the buzz.
All this helps to generate a froth of rumour, spun like Blackpool candy floss into the airy nothings of overheated minds. Too much cleverness with not enough to feed on encourages Talmudic deconstruction in search of textual meaning. The less the substance, the more comment on it has flourished, with the spinners and the spun clasped in an incestuous embrace. Which is the chicken, which the egg? This is the life blood of Westminster - and, rightly, despised by increasingly alienated and excluded voters.
So, now, away from the hothouse Winter Gardens, I turned to a small sample of the public over breakfast at Bill and Cath Hough's guest-house. The Northfield is just off the promenade down the road from the mighty Imperial Hotel, where the leadership stays and rooms are more precious than money. Here, at Bill and Cath's, you pay in advance "To Help You Budget Your Holiday" the sign says, adding, "In God we trust, others pay cash". Not only is it much cheaper, but also much nicer and brighter than the seedy semi-posh of the Imperial.
There is no one else from the conference staying here, but most of the other guests have been watching it on television. As we settle into egg, bacon, beans, sausage and fried bread among the Daddies sauce bottles and silk flowers, they kindly offer me their views. One or two voted Labour before, but most did not, so these are people Blair needs to win.
Paul and Richard, young men from Ipswich, voted Tory last time but now they waiver. One monitors water for farmers, the other is a printer. They murmur concern about health and education, but frankly, at their age, those are just words. Paul expresses a lot more irritation about the money taken out of his pay packet in tax and insurance. He says he'll consider Blair, but a double-whammy campaign risks sending him scuttling back to Major.
Holidaying together are Christine, a fancy leather worker, and Marie, a lab technician in her early thirties. They hate politics and never think about it. They are basically conservative, admiring Mrs Thatcher but no one else. "Tony Blair is smarmy. He gives me the creeps," Christine says. Marie is anti-Europe: "I want us out, absolutely." The only hope here for Labour is that they say they probably won't bother to vote at all and can't remember when they last did.
But Matthew and Elisabeth Mangan are the perfect new Labour young couple. They did not vote Labour last time but they will now. Home-owners with their first baby, Hannah, they touch every base. Elisabeth worries about the NHS. During her pregnancy her doctor wanted to admit her to hospital but there was no bed, so she had to commute in for five days. She worries that there will be no nursery school, and one day she hopes they might afford a private school but says she'd be happy to pay more tax for better education. Matthew is a Royal Mail manager in Bradford who has been out strike-breaking and delivering letters recently, so Blair's stern remarks to the postal workers suited him. "Labour has completely changed," he says. "It has opened up for people like us. There's no working-class stigma attached to it now." He is a pro-European who left school at 16 but wishes he could speak French.
Their parents were working class in the days when Labour won elections. To win again, Blair is targeting the Mangans, who are not working class any more and have absolutely no sentimental attachment to what they have escaped.
At the next table sits a life-long Labour couple, Pat and Terry O'Keefe, who first met in Blackpool years ago. He is an ex-miner (UDM and anti- Scargill) from Daws Mill colliery in Coventry. "We've done a role swap," she says. "I manage a shop selling Marks and Spencer's seconds from the factory, while he does the housework and cooking." They are both happy with the arrangement and very happy with new Labour. They want the minimum wage and they admire Blair. They were touched when they met a delegate in a pub who said he had wept during Tony Blair's speech.
Bill and Cath, proprietors of The Northfield, are strong characters yet still undecided about how to vote. Local politics clouds their view and they hate the Labour council in Blackpool. They claim the council is deliberately bringing in hordes of feckless young DSS claimants to fill empty boarding houses in their Lib Dem ward as a form of gerrymandering. "The crime rate's terrible. The drugs, the vandalism, all from these DSS hotels. They've advertised around the country, `Come and draw your dole by the sea'. It will destroy tourism," Cath says.
They voted Lib Dem last time. "Politicians are a load of liars," Bill says. He's not so sure about Blair, but they do want a minimum wage: their daughter is putting herself through college working in a nearby hotel, earning pounds 3 a hour as a silver-service waitress. Bill's grandfather was a rag-and-bone man, his mother struggled to bring up four children as a single parent and now he is doing a management course at the local college. Upwardly mobile, but politically undecided, he asks, "How can I be convinced by Blair?" My hunch is, he probably will be, just.
Then it was time to plunge back into the melee of the Winter Gardens for the piece de resistance, which in fact offered no resistance at all - the pensions debate. It is 10 years since I was last at a Labour Party conference, and during this debate I saw the astounding change. Like most of the people in the guest-house, the conference is an emblem of embourgeoisement. The delegates are ordinary people, just as they were in the old days, but ordinary people have changed, no longer symbolised by men in cloth caps, nor would they call themselves working class. The conference was filled with the ex-working classes, a new party for a new demography.
Astonishingly, there are many more women than men delegates here. How was that done? By a rule demanding women and men alternate each year. It did not please everyone. I met a 67-year-old woman from Cleethorpes on our way to the Police Federation meeting, who grumbled, "They said it had to be a woman. Well, we've only three on our committee and I'm the youngest. I've a frail mother to care for and my son was coming to visit."
Eighty per cent of the delegates have never been to conference before; 20 per cent of the delegates have joined the party since Tony Blair became leader. Ten years ago such a thick pall of smoke filled the all-male hall that the cameras couldn't shoot from the gallery. Excessive testosterone explained part of the aggression. Instead, I heard a young mother whispering into her mobile phone from the back of the hall, "I love you poppet, miss you lots, be good for Daddy."
So when it came to Baroness Barbara Castle's fine old rant, they stood and clapped in a patronising way, a confident warmth for this last surviving relic of history. But on they went to vote down her impossibilist resolution, not because they had been told to but because they are the sensible party now. That is pretty boring for us hacks and there is much nostalgia about the good old days when the platform was rocked by earthquakes from the floor. That was a story! Now it is the very dull, but very sensible, party.
Yes, this is the Ultimate Feel Good Show, and yet, another, darker thought hangs unspoken in the air. Unspeakable, unthinkable, it is the dreadful "What if?" question. What if, somehow, by means fair or foul, natural or supernatural, the Tories did it again? If even all this is not enough? What more could anyone ever do? Emigrate, say some, aghast at the thought. Despair and go. Abandon the idiot people to their well-deserved fate and flee. If the sleazy corruption of an exhausted gzovernment cannot be beaten by the most sensible and decent Labour Party ever, what then? So, we all had another drink; we've drunk deep in the last-chance saloon this week.
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