Back from the coast, a veteran conference-goer reflects on a season dogged by identity crises and wonders if the sun has set on the age of politics-by-the-sea
Now that the political conference season has come to an end, and MPs have returned to Westminster, it is worth reflecting on some of the themes that have run through debates at the seaside resorts favoured by our three main political parties.
The most surprising feature of the conferences this year was the extent to which all three parties were experiencing identity crises. The Tories are traumatised by their prolonged exclusion from the corridors of power, which they used to consider their natural habitat. The messy process of selecting their next leader has exposed the frustration they feel at their inability to recapture a winning formula.
The Liberal Democrats were unsure whether to celebrate the gain of a handful of seats at the general election or to grieve over what looks like a missed opportunity. And their habitual policy conundrum – whether to move left to try to win Labour votes, or right to appeal to traditional Tory supporters – remains unresolved.
Labour delegates were equally unsure whether to trumpet their historic third term, or to worry about a reduced majority and a more uncertain electoral future. Before the conference, the question of the party’s leadership loomed large, but was dispatched to the long grass by a characteristically bravura conference speech from the prime minister.
However, for all that Tony Blair still dominates the scene, it was clear that he had not won round the unreconstructed voices of old Labour, who still find numerous platforms to speak from at conference.
The identity crisis nibbling away at all three parties is intensified by the likelihood that, when we next go to the country, at least two will have a new leader. Michael Howard will have handed on the baton and Tony Blair has said that he will not fight another election, but one astute observer of the political scene confided in me his suspicion that it will be Charles Kennedy rather than Blair who will be the second leader out of the saddle.
Next year, for the first time in my memory, our conference won’t be by the seaside
International events provided the background for many debates this year. Iraq continues to cast a long shadow over the Labour Party and poses some difficult tactical challenges to the other two parties. However, it is Hurricane Katrina that really gave pause for thought, reminding us not just about the potential impact of global warming but also how the administration of the richest country in the world could apparently abandon its poor in an emergency.
For many years a recurring theme at the Labour party conference has been the need to combine economic dynamism and social justice. The rapid economic development of China and India has given an added urgency to this subject and provided the background to the prime minister’s message that we have to keep ahead of the game.
Another common theme for all parties is how to secure lasting improvements in public services, not least with the prospect of a much tighter public spending settlement in 2007. There are obvious implications here for construction, which was seen to be better placed than other sectors to ride out leaner times ahead, not least because of the political imperative of delivering projects such as the Olympics and Thames Gateway.
But as I packed my bag and headed back to London, another thought was on my mind. Next year, for the first time in my memory, our conference won’t be by the seaside. It will be in Manchester. This doesn’t just reflect that city’s transformed image, its city centre and its conference infrastructure. It also reflects changing priorities. Being by the sea is no longer an essential requirement for a large conference venue. Modernising and updating the facilities for delegates, exhibitors, and the small army of hangers-on who now populate political conferences is. When I first took an interest in party conferences, Brighton, Scarborough and Blackpool were the three dominant locations . As with the party leaders, one is already out of the frame and at least one more could be approaching the end of the road before we get to the next election. Modernise or die looks like being a significant slogan for the conference towns as well as their annual visitors.
Nick Raynsford is a former construction minister