Labour Party Conference 2011
Canvas is covering the Party Conference Season Autumn 2011.
‘A political geek’s equivalent of Disneyworld’
Like all non-politicians who attend party conferences, Labour 2011 was, for me, mostly about trying to find the best free food from a fringe event possible, discovering where the largest amount of complimentary alcohol was available from, and getting the cheap thrill of rubbing shoulders with the UK’s top TV journalists and politicians in what is quite a small environment. Conference is essentially a political geek’s equivalent of Disneyworld, where you wander around in the hope of getting a long, amorous hug and autograph from Mickey Mouse (or, in this case, Neil Kinnock).
The atmosphere this year was quite different to a year ago. In Manchester this time last year, Ed had just been elected leader, a lot of people were crying about the fate of his unfortunate elder brother, and the Shadow Cabinet hadn’t even been assembled yet. A year on, we’ve seen our man flounder in some polls and flourish in others, we’ve seen him back down on supporting strike action whilst seemingly finding his purpose and voice in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal. Plus he’s had a kid, got married and had his nose done. That’s a heavy year for anyone, and from it the main question on everyone’s minds was, after a year with the new leadership, what did Labour now stand for, and were we closer to figuring out what we would offer as a credible alternative to the coalition?
At our annual coming together to work out the answers to questions like these, Labour 2011 took place in the great city of Liverpool, and I therefore spent various amounts of my time in the Albert Dock, the Beatles Museum and Anfield, so I missed a lot of the exciting and riveting conference floor action, where Page 4, Paragraph 25, Section B, Part 7 of the Refounding Labour report was being discussed and debated with huge passion. But to visitors, members and people wanting to know more about the party, the conference hall is probably the least interesting place to be. To really find out what’s going on in the minds of the people running the show, you need to attend the various fringes and evening socials, be it a pub music quiz hosted by The Undertones’ Feargal Sharkey, watching Andrew Neil or Kirsty Wark interview a politician and then bicker afterwards, getting into the Guardian’s secret party to hear the Bootleg Beatles, or watching Tom Watson and Hugh Grant agree for a long time about how much of a tosser Rupert Murdoch is. Your experience may differ. But the discussions, policies and opinions offered by the many panel members of all of the fringe events all develop and shape ideas and policy throughout the party, and form the lifeblood of conference. You’ll never see them on the telly, but the fringe, social and networking events are easily the best part of attending any conference.
The leader’s speech
Of course the only day of conference the media’s genuinely interested in is the day of the leader’s speech. It involves a lot of queuing, a lot of waiting around for the main event and then a sense of not quite knowing what to do when the speech has concluded. That said, the speech itself is always a good event. The atmosphere inside the hall at a leader’s speech is unlike anything else I’ve experienced, and this year was no exception. I have no idea how it played on telly, nor do I know how the poor people who will have only heard Ed’s voice on the radio reacted, but from inside the hall the speech was cracking. I would say that, but still. His talk of predators versus producers, and about Labour being on the side of people who are just trying to get on, was in particular very good. His public question and answer session, sadly not much reported in the media, was also a huge success, Ed being very good at the whole walking round a stage in a white shirt and tie answering questions that are shouted at him.
Overall, Labour 2011 will not have left the country clear about the acute details of what the next Labour government would offer, rather a flavour of the sort of leader Ed is and the sort of priorities he would have as Prime Minister. Which, three and a half years out from an election, isn’t bad. Are we any closer to answering the question of what defines Labour as an alternative? A bit. The reality is that the policy reports are still concluding and there are adjustments to be made, meaning that by Labour 2012, those questions will have probably been answered. So my verdict on the whole affair would be that it was “pretty good”. Unlike last year, I didn’t see Andy Burnham very drunk and nor did I get to watch Ed Balls singing Mr Brightside at the RSPCA curry and karaoke party, but Labour 2011 was as fun, informative and useful for me as any political conference is for a jobbing youngster like myself.
Written by Sam Mannion, Chair of South Yorkshire Young Labour.
Edited by Ben Mackay.