Politicians head for the seaside

THREE weeks at the seaside beckon for EADT Political Editor GRAHAM DINES – the party conference season is on us once again. IT'S autumn and with it comes the permutation of Blackpool, Bournemouth and Brighton – the three major conference venues to where thousands of political activists, party leaders, exhibitors, hangers on and journalists flock in this annual orgy of the great political process.

THREE weeks at the seaside beckon for EADT Political Editor GRAHAM DINES – the party conference season is on us once again.

IT'S autumn and with it comes the permutation of Blackpool, Bournemouth and Brighton – the three major conference venues to where thousands of political activists, party leaders, exhibitors, hangers on and journalists flock in this annual orgy of the great political process.

To the public, the whole circus is a great yawn. Viewing figures for wall-to-wall television coverage have sunk so low that only satellite channel BBC Parliament now shows the debates live in their entirety.

Channel 4 has opted out, leaving just BBC2 to show keynote speakers, devoting most of their coverage to analysis from verbose studio guests.


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Perhaps it's just as well – conferences are so stage-managed that meaningful debate of politics is little more than a charade.

Tomorrow, the Liberal Democrats gather in Brighton, followed the week after by Labour in Bournemouth – far and away the best conference venue – and ending with the Conservatives in Blackpool.

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As ever, the Lib Dems believe their time is just about to come. They see an embattled government and weak main opposition party and assert they are in a position to fill the void.

"We are on the move up, there is no doubt about that," claims the Lib Dem leader. "The Conservatives seem to be effectively off the field of play, which I find amazing for an opposition party at this stage in the Parliament."

He believes the Lib Dems have enjoyed a high profile this year as the "effective opposition" over the war in Iraq," but they now have to broaden their appeal into the domestic agenda.

"There is a need for a fresh voice and fresh thinking in British politics. The building blocks for the Liberal Democrats are in place.

"We have a distinctive programme for reform of the public services, a clear voice on international issues, and a good track record on green issues. Now we must turn up the heat up on Labour as well the Tories and make the case to the people."

AS Tony Blair looks out the week after next from the suite of his Bournemouth cliff top hotel to the distance Needles off the Isle of Wight, he probably won't appreciate the imperious view or the charms of this south coast idyll.

The opinion polls may not be as bleak as they probably ought to be, but Labour is in turmoil. Deep hostility to the war in Iraq, and the Prime Minister's seemingly unquestioning loyalty to the military ambitions of President George W Bush, has angered tens of thousands of Labour loyalists.

The party's membership has plunged below 300,000, the unions have started flexing their muscles over pay and conditions, and key Government policies over foundation hospitals and higher education top up fees are deeply unpopular with activists.

In his key note speech to conference on the Tuesday, Tony Blair will mount a robust defence of his Iraq policy – telling delegates "we were right to join the Americans in taking action to remove Saddam from power" – while at the same time urging the party to unite behind his leadership to defend investment in public services which he claims would be at risk if the Tories were ever to regain power.

Yet the doubters in Labour's ranks over Iraq – and they will be much in evidence in Bournemouth – will question Mr Blair's closeness to George Bush and demand to know just why no weapons of mass destruction have been found, which was after all the pretext for war.

Hanging over him is the Hutton inquiry into the death of Dr David Kelly, allegations that the case for war was "sexed up" to exaggerate Saddam's ability to wage mayhem against British interests, and the revelation that intelligence chiefs had warned that military action would increase the risk of terrorist attacks against the UK.

For two of Labour's bruisers, Health Secretary Dr John Reid and Education Secretary Charles Clarke, conference will be the most important test of their political careers. Both face uphill struggles to convince delegates that Labour has to pursue polices on foundation hospitals and tuition fees, even though they strike at the very heart of traditional socialist values.

AND so to the Conservatives in Blackpool. All political precedent would indicate that the main opposition party, faced with a Government that has lost the trust of the voters, should be streets ahead in the polls. The Tories are not.

Iain Duncan Smith used his conference speech last year to proclaim: never under-estimate a quiet man. But within a month of returning to London from Bournemouth he was on the verge of quitting over the backstabbing and Chinese whispers from MPs deeply unhappy at his style of leadership.

Mr Duncan Smith survived – although the fallout from the years of open Tory warfare combined with the voters' long memories over sleaze and muddle in the 1990s still means there is no real desire to see the return of a Conservative government.

IDS's grip on his party could hardly be described as tight, but while the serial mutterers are always in the background, there is no real sign of a leadership challenge.

And the Blackpool conference will give the Conservatives the chance to show that they have come up some radical policies and ideas with which to challenge Labour.

SIGNALS from the opinion polls are confusing. In some, the Tories are narrowly ahead, in others Labour clings to a lead. In most, the Lib Dems are hovering either side of the 20% mark.

Charles Kennedy is almost certain to be Lib Dem standard bearer at the next election. And at least he recognises that if his party is to advance, it must be at the expense of Labour.

If Tony Blair does not lead Labour into the next election – as yet there is no evidence he will not, but Lord Hutton's findings could alter that – the presumption must by that Gordon Brown would take over.

Would the Conservatives be in a stronger position if either Kenneth Clarke or Michael Portillo had won the Tory leadership contest? Highly likely, but they didn't and the Conservatives have got to learn to get on with life as is and rally behind a man who has yet made little impact on the voters at large.

The only certainty is that when the party conference season ends, it will have made no difference to the electorate's disenchantment with both politics and politicians.

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