Conference calls: Are party conferences the dramatic spectacles they once were?
As party faithfuls gather and battle lines are drawn between lobby correspondents and spin doctors, James Macintyre finds out whether conferences can still deliver the big stories
Monday 15 September 2008
Love-hate: that is how many political reporters regard the three weeks of party conferences which start today. For all the fry-ups, posh dinners and boozy sessions at the bar, it is not all fun when lobby correspondents swap the Westminster press gallery for the bland conference centres of Blackpool, Brighton, Bournemouth, Manchester – and from this year – Birmingham.
The succession of conference debates, platform speeches and fringe meetings require physical fortitude and stamina, especially among those doing the "triple": the Liberal Democrats, Labour and the Conservatives (always in that order, whichever party is in power).
Towards the end of a tour – which may even have taken in last week's TUC conferences – many a bleary-eyed hack has vowed to never drink (or cover a conference) again.
And yet the strangely old-fashioned concept of the conference acts as a litmus test of a party's health: a must-attend for journalists given their best chance of the year to see politicians up close.
They are the stuff of legend, the scene of dissent and assassination, of late night plots and of mass shows of unity. They are where political careers are made, saved and lost, on the fringe as well as the conference hall.
In years gone by they have been the scene for great speeches that had a real effect on how the public viewed a party. Andrew Grice, The Independent's political editor, remembers a particularly crucial Labour turning point.
"I was a London-based political correspondent of the Liverpool Echo. Patricia Hewitt, Kinnock's press secretary, briefed the evening papers on his speech at a Bournemouth hotel two hours before he made it, because of our deadlines. She began by saying 'It's a humdinger' and she was right.
"It included Kinnock's now famous attack on the Militant Liverpool councillors, including Derek Hatton, whom he accused of hiring taxes to scuttle round a city handing out redundancy notices to their own workers. My splash, under a headline of 'Kinnock clobbers City Militants', was on the streets before Kinnock said the words, as his speech ran late and long. Listening to it was torture because I had a horrible feeling he would not use such inflammatory language when it came to it. So did my colleagues in Liverpool. No one was more relieved than I was when he finally got to that section and had the courage to go ahead. It was a defining moment in Labour's long march back from the wilderness."
Adam Boulton, Sky News's political editor, agrees that Kinnock's 1985 speech was a classic. "I was working for breakfast TV and had no pressing deadline. I leant against the wall in one of the football-style tunnels into the main hall facing the stage. Kinnock started laying into Militant in Liverpool. Derek Hatton was heckling. Eric Heffer MP was on the platform as a member of the NEC, he got up and led a walkout stomping through the audience and physically barging me out of the way as he rushed for the exit.
Kinnock was hounded by the centre-right-dominated media which lapped up images of him falling on the beach. But in truth he was a fine conference performer, epitomised by his 'why am I the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to go to university' speech which was lifted by the current Democratic vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden," he says.
"Then there was the 1993 tub-thumper from John Prescott in to rally Labour traditionalists in favour of One Member, One Vote, sought by John Smith, whom a passionate Prescott said had "put his head on the block". His syntax may have been mangled, but his intervention electrified the party faithful in Brighton.
Prescott, a conference darling, was to Labour what Michael Heseltine was to the Tories. Hezza, who for years made Tory wives and even husbands swoon with his charismatic, leader-in-waiting speeches, once delivered the memorable response to New Labour's "neoclassical endogenous growth theory". In a reference to the Chancellor's brainy adviser, he exclaimed: "It's not Brown's at all! It's Balls'!"
Jane Merrick, the Independent on Sunday's political editor, remembers the power of Tony Blair's rhetoric. She says: "Two speeches to Labour party conference stick in my mind: in 2001, when he said the 'kaleidoscope has been shaken' after the 9/11 attacks – he encapsulated the enormity of how the world had changed in one single phrase; and in 2006, after what was effectively his resignation speech, I remember some people in the hall were left uneasy that they'd been swept along by his rhetoric despite wanting him to go. That was the power of his oratory.
"In the intense atmosphere of conferences, judgements are passed quickly and a narrative develops that is impossible to fight. So, David Davis's leadership speech in 2005 was not terrible, but some MPs watching branded it a disaster and by the following morning's newspapers he was written off."
The nature of conferences has, of course, changed over the years. Nowadays there is less dissent, and conferences have become ever-slicker, stage-managed affairs. Boulton says: "It's less exciting covering conferences since those days – there's no real debate or argument and loads more officious security."
Peter Hitchens, of the Mail on Sunday, says: "I remember howls of rage, walk-outs and factional baying at Labour conferences, along with genuinely contested elections for office, and even some acerbity over the European Union at Tory ones," he says. "These days, even the fringe meetings are uncontroversial and worthy. We all used to joke that Tory conferences were as devoid of dissent as Soviet Communist congresses.... No doubt Russian journalists covering sessions of the Russian Duma these days complain that their sessions 'are as boring and stage-managed as a British Tory conference'".
But to dismiss the modern conference as undramatic would be wrong. For journalists – whose papers and TV companies lay on lavish parties to pull in the big names – many a story can be picked up in the bars and on the fringe.
And sometimes the mood outside the conference hall is the story: the widespread disillusionment with "quiet man" Iain Duncan Smith among the Tory faithful at their 2003 party conference sealed his fate.
Often the real mood of a party's grassroots is a bruising experience for journalists. Some hard-core Tory delegates for example, despise reporters: one remembers being identified as an "enemy" thanks to the colour-coded security pass system and attacked with a walking stick for using a mobile phone while queuing to get into the conference hotel. The encounter was in stark contrast to the party machine's slick approach to the media inside the conference hall. Even on the main stage, political trajectories can be altered (Peter Lilley never really recovered from a cringe-making parody of Gilbert and Sullivan at Blackpool), and there is no underestimating the importance of "a good conference".
This year the consensus inside the Lobby is that Gordon Brown must make "the speech of his life" to save his premiership. Brown will need to eclipse any factionalism on the fringe, where the media will gather en masse at a Progress rally of "Blairites".
David Cameron meanwhile will need to live up to expectations after emerging from nowhere in a 2005 party conference beauty contest between leadership candidates in which the Etonian dazzled the press as well as delegates by giving a speech without notes.
And Nick Clegg must establish himself into the national psyche, using this rare opportunity to exploit the unusual focus of the media on his party to allow it to punch above its weight.
Conferences may be gruelling and intense, not just for politicians. But for journalists overall, these important spectacles are more love than hate.
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