Stages set for start of election campaign

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An eight-month general election campaign will begin next week, with the three main political parties using their annual conferences as "shop windows" to persuade a sceptical electorate to buy their policies.

An eight-month general election campaign will begin next week, with the three main political parties using their annual conferences as "shop windows" to persuade a sceptical electorate to buy their policies.

Party managers whose job is to avoid embarrassing moments at the annual seaside gatherings know their grassroots troops are less likely to mutiny as an election approaches. And with every sign that Tony Blair will seek a new mandate in May, the behind-the-scenes fixers will sleep more easily in their hotel beds this year. "We think the election will concentrate minds," one Blair aide said yesterday.

The conferences of all three parties have been pretty tame in recent years compared with the high drama of the Wilson and Callaghan era, the uncompromising speeches of the Thatcher years, and the charge of the "beards and sandals" brigade who ambushed David Steel and Paddy Ashdown.

Labour has scrapped its votes on lengthy composite motions cobbled together during late-night bargaining sessions. Instead, it holds sober debates on anodyne reports from the party's national policy forum, which read like an endless checklist of what the Government has already done.

Delegates who once plotted against the leadership into the early hours are now up at dawn for "briefing" and "training" sessions from Labour officials and ministers, allowing them to let off steam behind closed doors rather than in front of the television cameras.

The Tory gathering has always been the most stagemanaged but will surpass even its own standards this year. Its constituency parties have not been allowed to submit motions and there will be only one vote - on a topical motion representatives will choose in a ballot.

The suppression of debate on the conference floor often transfers it to fringe meetings, which have attracted much more media attention in recent years. But the Tories have come up with a wheeze to combat this - what Michael Ancram, the party chairman, bizarrely called "a number of fringe events that will be organised centrally".

So William Hague will address a "keep the pound" rally and attend a countryside fair. But such Millbank-style control will not stop the simmering debate on Europe bubbling up at other fringe meetings.

The average age of Tory party members is 64, and conference organisers are desperate to project a more youthful image. "The stage looks like something out of Blade Runner," one official revealed.

Labour will eschew such gimmicks. Its conference set in Brighton will be "bright and confident", organisers promise, but the solid message will be about building on the Government's record - which, of course, will require a second term. We can expect plenty of warnings about what the Tories would do if they were allowed back into power.

Mr Blair needs to inspire his party's members for the election battle and will try to convince them he is no longer the control freak that some allege. He could suffer his first conference defeat since becoming party leader in 1994, possibly over demands for at least half of the House of Lords to be elected to stop "Tony's cronies" dominating the second chamber.

In a throwback to the past, there will be "horse-trading" over pensions. Ministers will offer last-minute concessions in the hope of persuading the trade unions not to inflict what would be an embarrassing defeat on the leadership.

The rebellion over fuel prices has sent shock waves through the political parties and will add an unexpectedly spicy ingredient to the conference season. Mr Hague hopes to foment a wider taxpayers' revolt" against the "back-door" tax rises imposed since 1997.

Labour will argue that the tax revenues are needed to fund health and education, and is confident the Tories have misjudged the public mood. Mr Blair's focus groups suggest that people would rather see investment in key public services than cheaper petrol.

Beginning the conference round tomorrow are the Liberal Democrats, whose platform slogan is the party's website address ( They sense an opening over fuel taxes that will allow their leader, Charles Kennedy, to develop the party's green credentials. He will also hope to win over "one nation" Tories and Labour supporters disenchanted with the Government's treatment of pensioners.