The bluffer's guide to the Labour conference

The beleaguered party managed a few triumphs in defiance of low opinion polls
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Indy Politics

Starting as they meant to go on

It was billed, like so many before it, as Labour's most crucial conference for decades – only this time, it was true. The depleted ranks of party activists trudged to Brighton fearing a pitiful spectacle and, more than ever before, needing a bit of leadership. Just as well that old tub-thumper Alistair Darling was at his inspiring best, opening the week with a complaint to The Observer that Labour looked like a football team that had lost "the will to live". At least, as an Aberdeen fan, he knew what he was talking about. Gordon Brown grasped the heart-warming theme, warning party members in a policy document that they faced "the fight of our lives". Lord Mandelson, rather helpfully, let it be known via The Sunday Times that he would be happy to serve in a Conservative government.

The loyal servant

If Lord Mandelson's remarks confirmed that the capricious Blairite had not changed much during his exile, his speech on Monday exploded the impression. He remains a compelling vaudeville act, but he has made a remarkable journey from music-hall villain to loveable pantomime dame. His speech, from camp self-deprecation to the arch attacks on George Osborne, was one of the highlights of the conference – and boasted most of its best lines. "I know that Tony [Blair] said our project would only be complete when the Labour Party learned to love Peter Mandelson," he told captivated delegates. "I think perhaps he set the bar a little too high, though I am trying my best." More significantly, the attempt to portray Labour as underdogs, rather than tired incumbents, crystallised the theme of the conference and set up Mr Brown's speech the following day. "If I can come back," Lord Mandelson concluded, "we can come back."

At least he stayed on his feet

In an atmosphere of such despair, it fell to the Prime Minister to rally the troops with the leader's speech on Tuesday. Ironically, the party's dire predicament made his task that much easier: expectations were so low that many confessed they would be happy if he got to the end without falling over. He managed to make a reasonable fist of it. Mr Brown reminded the party that Labour had not wasted all its time in Government, with an impressively long list of achievements since 1997 – and even stuck a series of new policy ideas in at the end of a sometimes clunky performance.

The spectre at the buffet

It never quite amounted to a political feast, but Mr Brown's bravura performance at least gave disheartened delegates a reason not to spend the night alone with their minibars on Tuesday. Yet, just as the party was warming up, the bubble was burst by the carefully timed and consummately vindictive revelation that The Sun had responded to the PM's best efforts by, er, switching its support to the Tories. Labour was once again plunged into despair, but at least the disparate wings of the party were united in their hatred of a common enemy. In the early hours of Wednesday morning, the boozers gathered around a piano downstairs in the Grand Hotel were politely informed that their raucous renditions of Oasis and Robbie Williams standards were disturbing the News International party upstairs. The unanimous response, from a crew including ministers Ben Bradshaw and Jim Knight, was to pump up the volume.

The stars

Sarah Brown went beyond the call of duty once again, confessing that her husband was "noisy and messy" before thousands of people in an attempt to make them all love him as much as she does, or at least vote for him. "He will always make the time for people, for our family, for his friends, for anyone who needs him," Mrs Brown said of a man she described as "My husband, my hero". "That's part of the reason why I love him as much as I do. That is what makes him the man for Britain, too." But even this polished performance was overshadowed by the subtle charm of Ed Miliband. Lauded last year for an unexpectedly confident, Cameron-style performance as warm-up man for Mr Brown, the Secretary of State for Climate Change enhanced his growing reputation with a policy-rich speech. His political nous was underlined by the revelation, at a fringe meeting, that he supports electoral reform – particularly the alternative vote (AV). The system was endorsed in Mr Brown's speech the following day, underlining Mr Miliband's intimacy with No 10 policy-making.

Still in there fighting

David Miliband met the growing challenge of establishing himself as the coming political force in his own family, let alone the rest of the country, with gusto – and no bananas. Alan Johnson won a few brownie points with the public with complaints over the treatment of Fiona Pilkington, the mother who killed herself and her disabled daughter after years of torment from abusive local youths. Despite her difficulty in delivering a good line, Harriet Harman's willingness to fight opponents – not least The Sun – enhanced her standing.

What they said

"While the sick bags were being collected in the wake of Sarah Brown's Stepford Wife routine, Gordon launched into a sequence of implausible guff that, at its best, rose to the standard of Christmas-cracker mottoes." Gerald Warner, The Daily Telegraph.

"Where do I sign up, sergeant-major? The Prime Minister still has fight in him and the self-belief to take the fight to the spoilt rich kids who hunger for power." Paul Routledge, Daily Mirror.

"After 12 long years in power, this government has lost its way. Now it's lost The Sun's support too." Front-page editorial, The Sun.

The IoS says

Mr Brown started the week with a difficult task, and The Sun's decision threatened to make it impossible. But he did keep his Government on track and underlined Labour's achievements while suggesting they have ideas for the future. For a party so far behind in the polls it is at best a start; but Brighton could easily have signalled The End.

Labour by numbers

1 hour The length of Gordon Brown's speech.

12,000 The number of visitors and delegates who attended the conference.

1983 The last time Labour was so far behind in the polls.

10 minutes How long Peter Mandelson had to wait at the conference's security entrance before being allowed in.