LABOUR IN BRIGHTON: Old guard battle against spin as utility players call the shots

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The Independent Online
You would think from the media previews that the whole of Brighton had been taken over by the Tony Blair circus, presently pitching its big top on the prom, Presco the clown ready to take centre stage as always.

But there are still people to be spotted about the town not wearing Armani, their pockets unencumbered by mobile phones, going about their business apparently impervious to the public relations activity spinning around them. People like Tony Benn, for instance. He sat at the back of the conference hall as New Labour went through its first morning, watching the activity on the hi-tech platform (colour scheme pink with grey fringes), face longer than a composite motion. His eyes almost rolled out of the top of his head as Chris Smith, heritage spokesman, made his bid for Labour's big idea. "Under Labour, lottery funds will be used for a Millennium Archive, digitally-stored access to the country's greatest treasures," said Smith.

The light murmur that greeted Smith suggested the conference wasn't sure this would deliver the keys to Number 10. In fairness, there may have been better chance of applause for Smith's call for "real electronic democracy" were the hall not less than a quarter full at the time. The delegates, it seemed, preferred to be elsewhere, where the real action was. Such as in the village of special interest stalls which litter the downstairs of the conference centre. Here was a taste of New Labour: the privatised water companies had a stall, and British Airways and British Nuclear Fuels, all offering information about how they were run in the national interest. The biggest scrum for information, however, was around the Sainsbury's kiosk. "Guess the grape and win a bottle", said a woman handing out free beakers of plonk. "And if you can't guess, just have a drink anyway." Like a corner shop when a superstore opens up the road, the Fabian Society stall opposite (personned by a Liz Davies lookalike, ear lobes straining under several kilos of costume jewellery) was unable to compete with information like that.

It is on the fringe, away from the stage-managed rally on the platform, that you imagine you would find the kind of talk to make Tony Benn smile. Except even here, the spin doctors were in control. Peter Mandelson hosted the biggest meeting of the opening day, handing out leaflets recruiting new canvassers ("if you reply within seven days," purred the copy, "you will be entered into a draw for a special gift personally signed by Tony Blair").

"You may have read over the summer that I am a great believer in media manipulation," said Mr Mandelson, opening the meeting. "Well that is true." He then asked all representatives of the media to leave the room so he could spin in private.

Meanwhile, back in the hall, there was one moment when the old did its best to bat against the spin. A delegate urged that British Gas be brought back into public ownership as soon as Labour won the election. "I see old people in tears all the time because they cannot afford the prices charged to line millionaires' pockets," he said, words which Tony Benn greeted like old friends.

There was a hint that the delegate might not get his way, however, in the official documentation for the conference. On the back page of the glossy info pack (cost: pounds 15, New Labour doesn't need any lessons in monopoly pricing) is a full-page advertisement for British Gas.