Letter from Simon Kelner: Politics is poorer for passing up seaside conferences


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The Independent Online

I always looked forward to party conference season.

After a long summer when politics basically shut down (remember: we used to have weeks when John Prescott had his finger on our nuclear button), it signalled a return to serious business. The silly season was over: now it was down to the real stuff, proper men's work, like petty squabbles, behind-the-scenes politicking and jostling for supremacy.

It also means that for a few weeks every autumn, London-based journalists and politicians could sample the delights of the English seaside – i.e. paying outrageously hiked-up prices for a small, overheated room in a once-grand hotel that employs only non-indigenous workers.

Well, that's how it used to be. Now, there's no chance for jaded hacks and politicos to recharge their batteries with a walk along the front at Brighton, or to have their ennui swept away by the winds at Blackpool.

This year, the conferences are in Birmingham, Manchester and, for the first time, Liverpool. They will be much more business-like, the restaurants will be better, the hotels will not see the need to charge rip-off prices. But I can't help feeling that something is missing.

Of course, we all complained about the prices and the service – I was once with a group of people having lunch with Jack Straw in a famous old hotel in Blackpool, and the then home secretary, accompanied by his security detail, went into the kitchen to get our food himself, so fed up was he with waiting. But there was also something about the sea air that made conference an invigorating affair.

We got the chance to ride the roller coaster at Blackpool (the most apposite metaphor for politics), we saw Bill Clinton in a fish and chip shop, we watched in horror as Neil Kinnock stumbled on the beach at Bournemouth, we had conspiratorial suppers at English's fish restaurant in Brighton. Because there's something quaint, disorganised, and very English, about our seaside towns, these qualities permeated conference. Which in turn made them exciting and unpredictable.

The great cities of Britain will provide a suitably dramatic backdrop to the 2011 conference season. But give me the sea spray in my face any day!