Election '97: On the importance of being frivolous

Graham Ball, at the Royal Albert Hall, finally discovers clear blue water - some parties just don't want to party
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Indy Politics
At Last an issue that divides the parties... the party! Or the importance the parties place on mass rallies of their faithful.

Opinions range from the Referendum Party's wholehearted commitment to a mass flag-waving demonstration, to Labour's decision to sit this one out.

First rally of the season with a brave attempt to raise confidence was the Tories' last Friday evening at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Two thousand stalwarts, constituency activists and party workers, did their best to recreate the patriotic fervour of the last night of the proms.

The evening began with a trad jazz band complete with cakewalking leader in black bowler hat, white gloves, silk sash and umbrella playing a slow- step version of "My Old Man Said Follow the Van".

The crowd waved small, plastic Union flags in time with the beat, but half an hour on were becoming restive, rather like a matinee audience at a provincial panto waiting for the curtains to go up.

At 6.30pm the tempo changed and a loud disco beat crashed out over the public address system and the huge screen suspended over the stage switched on to show excited scenes at the back of the hall. It was Jeff - Lord Jeffrey Archer - still the Tories best stand-up on his way through the now wildly cheering crowd to the stage.

"I tried to phone up the leader of the Opposition today," began the Tory peer. "Trouble was Peter Mandelson wasn't in and I had to talk to Tony Blair instead." Wooh! Ten more minutes had the crowd on the ceiling, only to come crashing down as Jeffrey Archer handed over to the Conservative Party Chairman.

As a warm-up man, Dr Mawhinney is about as effective as a holiday time- share salesman. The flags began to droop. After an endless ten minutes, the agony was over. Enter John and Norma stage left, to a relieved standing ovation. It was the Prime Minister's easiest gig of the campaign so far. The mainly middle-aged, middle-class, middle-England Tories clapped and waved and cheered throughout his long speech.

"The first trust of any Prime Minister is to keep our nation as one nation. If he (Tony Blair) cannot be trusted on that, he should not be trusted on anything," said Mr Major. From Tony's alleged gaffe he moved smartly to the safest of Tory terrains, asking fellow Conservatives to shut their eyes the better to experience the spirit in the famous hall.

"I bet most people, like me, get a lump in their throats then. It is our pride which shows our special British sense of fun on that great night," he said. The stirring rhythms of "Land of Hope and Glory" blast out and the hall went into a frenzy of clapping and flag-waving. More than four minutes on my watch.

"John is just such a good man, you can trust him," said one Dame Shirley Porter lookalike.

On Tuesday it is the Lib Dems turn with a London rally addressed by Paddy Ashdown and Baroness Shirley Williams.

"We like rallies, they are intended for the party faithful, but anyone can come along. We believe that it is a great way of involving everyone in the campaign. We are going as far north as Aberdeen," said a Lib Dem spokeswoman.

Next Sunday the Referendum Party is taking over the Alexandra Palace in north London for what it hopes will be the biggest rally of the entire election: "The Ally Pally rally, we know, will by the strength of our turnout influence the other parties and warn them that they cannot ignore or deceive us," said Sir James Goldsmith, the party's founder.

The Labour Party appears not to have recovered from the triumphalist nightmare of the notorious victory rally in Sheffield at the end of the last election.

"We do not see any sense in simply preaching to the converted," said one party manager. "In this election we will be focusing on the undecided voters. They will be smaller and take the form of a debate. There will be no rallies as such."