Thursday, September 28, 2006

As the week draws to a close, I can well and truly say that my conference virginity has been lost forever, but am I leaving wanting more, or will I wake up full of regrets? Definitely the former.

I'll be taking a variety of things away from my first conference, but there's two points I'd like to make beyond all others. I can not believe that anyone outside of our party can say, with any degree of accuracy, that we have run out of steam. Watching delegates in the hall, chatting to members in the fringes, mingling aimlessly in the bars and coffee shops, there's an energy and enthusiasm buzzing through the complex which the Tories, next week, could only dream of. There are new ideas at every turn.

I've been asked, thankfully only a few times, if I'm "Blairite", "Brownite", even "Johnsonian" (a new one on me). I say this, these terms are nothing more than labels attributed to us by those who wish to disunite us. I support Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and for that matter John Reid, Alan Johnson and all our Ministers because they are the ones who take our values and ensure that they are out there changing the lives of those who need them most.

It's the end of the first of many conferences for me, but I'm leaving this one more motivated than ever.

Good old Prezzer.

With all the talk of Blair and Brown as the architects of New Labour, I think few appreciate how it would not have existed without him.

The thing that summed up the Party's affection for John Prescott, is its reaction to the video compilation shown after his speech. In the infamous clip of him thumping an egg-throwing campaigner, the entire floor erupted with cheers. The PM once said "John is John", and the membership will always forgive him, because who could not smile at the mans passion?

John Reid delivered his speech like a preacher would his congregation. I wasn't convinced it was the bid for the top job that some are portraying it to be, it wasn't a speech of bravado or showmanship; rather a typically workmanlike, understated presentation of what Labour values can do at home and abroad.

Here was a man who doesn't need that "dream ticket" to get his dream job, it seemed like he already has it.

His efforts won't have done anything to stop those who think that conference has been thin on the ground in terms of policy announcements, but rather confirm that there is another battle going on. The battle is not for the leadership, nor is it for the right to govern (yet), but rather a battle to maintain and develop New Labour values in these turbulent times - something which has been at the very heart of every major speech this week.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/5386344.stm

Probably tells you everything that you need to know about todays vote on health reforms.

You don't have to have been here to have seen it coming.

Just got back from a packed Yorkshire & Humber reception. Our regional director, one Nan Sloane, will be leaving us for pastures new after this conference, and I was pleased to see that both the PM and the Deputy PM gave her a ringing endorsement. "She's such a shy and unassuming figure", the PM quipped to a roar of laughter.

When I shook the PM's hand a few moments later, I was expecting a slightly firmer pressure, and in this embarrassing mix-up of hand-shaking etiquette, I might have accidentally crunched a knuckle or two. With my once promising career potentially over, I look forward to seeing special branch at my front door very soon.

The penultimate day of conference and the local coffee shops are doing a roaring trade in extra strength espresso. I'll blog a little later on some of the contraversial things that have happened on the conference floor. In the meantime, my day so far...

1) Had breakfast with Stephen Twigg (of kicking Portillo's ass in '97 fame). Now as the Director of the Foreign Policy Centre, he concerns himself with, amongst other things, the growing crisis in Darfur. You can read various interesting articles on the website linked above. We reminisced about 1997 (even though I was only 15 at the time), talked about his potential return to Parliament and his pro-euro stance. Nice bloke.

2) Bill Clinton's return to Conference. Never having seen the bloke in person, I was chuffed to bits, but it's easy to get carried away by seeing someone of his stature. His speech was ok, he explains his ideas in a very thoughtful and intelligent way, but has nothing like the oratory skills we saw yesterday of TB.

3) Quick thing with fellow bloggers and David Miliband - perhaps the most articulate of the new wave of New Labour MPs. I told him of the difficulties of setting up local Labour parties in rural areas, and asked him what advice he would offer. Naturally, the message was "keep going", but he had quite a hardline on those in rural communities, such as my own, who refuse to engage with Labour representatives. If they don't allow us to talk to them and work with them to develop policy and precedure, how we can we be effective?

Many thanks to Ciaron for the Labour Students event last night. I say "many thanks" in a loose way as I'm paying for it now.

There is an urgent need for our party's students to become active on our campuses. In the 2005 general election, every East Midlands, Labour held constituency with a high student population swung away from Labour by at least twice the national average. There is real evidence that active Labour clubs in our Universities can help stop this trend.

For more information on joining them, or donating to their cause, see here.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Sycophantic and proud.

Who on Earth says that we have no passion left?! Who on Earth says that Tony Blair is and always will be distanced from the Party?!

I must say that both of those statements couldn't be further from the truth. The amount of energy that came from the conference floor in reaction to the PM's speech was unbelieveable. Delegates left the floor feeling motivated, excited, proud, and perhaps most importantly, like they were being led.

Of course, Tony's public oratory skills are famous, but his speech went far beyond performance. It was about what it is to be Labour. It was a speech brimming with optimism and progressive, sensible politics.

On Saturday I blogged about Tony's reception by grassroots members at a fringe event. These are the people who, so the media says, aren't meant to like him. These are the same people who refused to let him get off the stage without a seemingly endless standing ovation, interspersed with roars of approval.

Whoever is to follow him, has a tough act to follow on all counts.

I just had a very pleasant chat with Bill Rammell, Higher Education Minister.

Back in the day, I was Education & Welfare Officer for Loughborough Students Union, so I'm glad that I got the opportunity to quiz him on something, other than debt, that students have been concerned about.

I don't doubt for a second the importance of getting more people, from all backgrounds, in to Higher Education but I put it to him that, as with any market, the more people that have something (i.e a degree) then the less it's worth. He quoted recent studies by the South Bank University (which I'll try and dig out for this blog) which he said proved that degrees are still worth the debt, he did suggest that as a party, we need to be better at communicating such messages to the student population - an interesting comment to make given New Labour's reputation as media obsessed.

I also pressured him to look at helping to improve funding for Student Unions that help supply students with the transferable skills they need to be successful in the jobs market. SU's play a valuable role in a student's employability - and they need to get more help from somewhere.

We have a guest blogger! Not because I'm getting lazy, but because it's an interesting insight in to the workings of conference. I've got a BBC News 24 team following me around for much of the day, so I'm off to straighten my tie and at least try to look the part...the words below are of one Andy Preston, delegate for my home constituency of Thirsk and Malton.
The speech that didn’t happen

Having a coffee at 8.30am I was greeted by a rep from Labour regional office. “You’re involved in finance – fancy delivering speech on pensions?” I must have looked a bit stunned because he then said: “don’t worry it’ll only be three minutes long!”

Within fifteen minutes I was upstairs at the GMEX, writing my piece; quizzing party experts on related matters and beginning to feel that time was running out.

For rest of the day till 2.30pm I refined and rehearsed. I wrote a good speech suggesting that the great work of Labour’s white paper on pensions should be extended. I proposed the phasing out of dividend tax in pension schemes, citing benefits for savers, companies and the economy.

How could we pay for this tax break? “Easy”, I wrote, we should instigate a significant transaction tax on multiple property ownership; this move could balance the books and halt excessive house price inflation.

The debate on pensions began. Eventually, delegates from the floor were invited to speak. Three times I stood up, frantically waving my arms. My heart was pounding, I wanted to speak.

I wasn’t selected out of the many who tried. I left the GMEX centre downbeat and deflated.

I am now back at the GMEX at 9.30pm on the same day, writing a speech on ‘Britain in the world’.

You’ve got to keep trying…

It's been a long night - and it's not over yet.

It started at 5.30pm, courtesy of the All Party Parliamentary Beer Club. Many thanks to Richard Corbett MEP, John Grogan MP and Robert Humphreys for the invite. A quick formal talk about beer later, and the free bar commenced. Happy days.

From there to a private reception organised by the Times. Pretty much every political journalist you've ever heard of was there, and those I got to meet were very nice.

Today's Independent suggested that Alan Johnson and John Reid had formed a "golden ticket" partnership to contest the Leader and Deputy Leader elections (all though the latter rests in the hands of John Prescott deciding to stand down). I don't particularly believe what I read, but they did seem especially chummy tonight, with them greeting each other with a big bear hug. Interesting.

One thing I've got from chatting to delegates from across the party, is that, if there is a viable alternative, Gordon Brown will definitely not have the easy ride he'd hoped for.

Oh, one last thing. How big is [the Sun Editor], Rebekah Wade's hair?!

Right, back to the bar...

Monday, September 25, 2006

So Gordon's speech.

I made the not-very-smart decision of arriving late, hence me standing on my tip toes at the bottom corner of the stage.

What did you think? Add your comments below.

For me, we saw a personal side rarely seen before. Too many people have seen him as a lifeless robot who has one single, pre-programmed dimension. For me, he was reminiscent of some of the best bits of New Labour circa 1997. He seemed like the bloke from down the street who genuinely cares - a trait which has real pulling power at the electorate.

He was at his best when talking in simple terms. He spoke of his parents and their influence. He spoke of the mother he met in the street, the young couple who couldn't afford to buy a home, the kids who had nothing to do on an evening.

Needless to say, the biggest applause he received was his "I would love to take on David Cameron". From the reaction he received, that's what everyone else wants too.

I'm not going to lie to you, it's a second morning of self-inflicted pain. I could certainly get used to the free booze and free food, but I suspect my vital organs might not.

Bumped in to a couple of friends, one from Loughborough University, the other being Helen Simmons, former Vice President of NUS, both of whom were in fine form.

Is anyone else getting bored of the "after 18 years of Tory rule" stuff? I must have heard it 20 times in the last 48 hours. Nobody in the party denies the economic mismanagement and general alround incompetence of the Tories (both now and then), but that regime ended 10 years ago, and using such a quote is just self-indulgent and lazy.

For too long it's been a "get out of jail free card" statement. If you're asked a question you can't answer, you say "well don't forget how rubbish the Tories were". Yawn.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Just got back from a social market foundation event with David Miliband, Stephen Byers and John Denham, regarding New Labour and whether it was "old hat" or not. All three didn't really answer the question to be quite honest, but did offer some interesting ideas. Mr Byers commented on how ridiculous it is that we haven't had a proper debate on tax - a real issue on the campaigning doorstep. Quite right too.

David Miliband was excellent, I can see why he's rated highly in New Labour circles. Most memorable was his position on the environment - the UK could become carbon neutral tomorrow and climate change wouldn't be halted; that's exactly why we need to work with our European neighbours on all environmental issues. We have to move on from justifying the EU as a mechanism for peace, and start promoting it as a mechanism for stopping climate change. Hear hear!

You can see the transcript of Hazel Blears' speech here, but you can probably imagine what it was about - yes she mentioned the Tories, yes she congratulated Tony Blair, but the underlying theme was the holy grail of party politics, regenerating the party from within Government.

In her speech, which was preceded by an awards ceremony for outstanding Party members and a video of her working in Tescos (see? Fact-finding missions aren't always in Mauritius!), covered the regeneration of Manchester since the IRA bomb in 1996, the development of Labour politics since the 19th Century "Peterloo" - where many where massacred on a demonstration for workers rights on the site of the GMEX centre - and, of course, the complete absence of Tories from the Manchester City Council chamber. Her efforts were designed for one reason, to make us feel good about ourselves, and for the majority, it worked. Mind you, it's hard to keep your enthusiasm going when such speeches are surrounded by announcements from compositing and procedures committees.

Elsewhere today, I attended an excellent fringe organised by the European Parliamentary Labour Party (EPLP). Martin Schulz (Leader of the Party of European Socialists group in the European Parliament) and Margaret Beckett spoke frankly and openly about euroscepticism, the future of European Politics and the importance of it. Click here to see 100 Labour Achievements in Europe (.pdf)

I asked Ms Beckett: "Should European policy be Foreign Policy, or domestic policy?", which leads to the question of a possible Government department for European Affairs, something which the EPLP want. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she managed to avoid giving a real answer.

So, Conference got in to full swing last night with the delegates meeting in the Radisson hotel (just outside the G-Mex bulding).

Catching up with a few old friends, making a few new ones and all that nice stuff. Bumped in to Lynda McDermott, a colleague from the Labour Movement for Europe, who ensured I was introduced to all of "Labour's biggest gossipers". Lovely people, and boy, can they talk!

After a few glasses of wine, the rumours started. "The PM's on his way", "The PM will be hear in 10" and so on. A few people started to clap, everyone turned their attention to the main entrance, held their breath with anticipation and.....Gordon Brown walked in - it may have been an accident, it may have been a message, it may have been Gordon thinking it was Conference 2007 already, who knows. Either way, the reception he received wasn't exactly that of a Prime Minister in waiting.

Tony Blair's reception, however, was a different story. He must have been a little anxious given recent goings-on as to what would happen. He was welcomed, to his visible relief, with open arms, cheers and a genuine outpouring of support; far different, I would say, to what some of the Sunday Papers have been suggesting.

I must say, without being sycophantic, Tony Blair's address was excellent - "we've done well in the past, and we have to tell everyone that, but now is the time to look to the future" was the message. Probably a hint as to the content of his final conference speech on Tuesday.

The evening wasn't without it's moments of comedy, of course, particularly Hazel Blears' head being a good two feet below the microphone from which she spoke. Bless her! Talking of Hazel, I'd better get to her speech...

Saturday, September 23, 2006

"There is not harm in patience, and no profit in lamentation" (Abu Bakr)

So, I entered the secure zone filled with intrigue. I've been hypothesising for some time as to what it would be like and, more importantly, what the atmosphere would be like given recent goings-on.

Personally, I'd love this week to be about getting on with debating policy - but something made me suspect that it isn't to be. Yes, my first observation of conference 2006, was Harriet Harman, already contesting a non-existent Deputy Leadership contest, doing a tv interview. Remember Harriet, it's a marathon, not a sprint.

Right, I'm off for my first "social event" of the week...

So, arriving at Manchester Piccadilly circa 2pm, I was instantly impressed. A sea of eager staff in yellow jackets guiding you from station to tram to G-Mex to hotel.

Mind you, if I had managed to get lost, I could have merely followed the general din eminating from the anti-war march taking place outside the conference hall. There is always something heart-warming about seeing thousands of people taking the streets in such a way.

I must admit, I couldn't understand the perspective of the man holding a sign declaring "We live in a dictatorship. Freedom is dead". In more reckless days, I might have pointed out to him that the simple act of being able to attend such demonstrations proves that freedom is very much alive.

A warm welcome to conference 2006, and my blog that aims to keep you informed as to the weeks' comings and goings, gossip, debates, pub-banter and more.

Much has been made in the blogosphere (the fraternity of political bloggers), about how this will be my first Labour Party conference – I am a self confessed conference virgin who, sitting here at half past midnight, is writing this first entry on the eve of his proverbial wedding night.

In light of my impending coming-of-age, it wasn’t without a sense of irony that I saw Jess Morden’s (MP for Newport East) blog from conference 2005. “Gordon made love to us” she writes, whilst “Tony…gives it to us hard”.

My innocence is disappearing in a way I never imagined; don't get me wrong, I like them both, but just...you know...as friends.

So, I’ll be in Manchester from Saturday morning until Thursday night. I’ll be writing about my thoughts, feelings and observations of the coming week, with the occasional hint of a rant to boot. I’ll be telling it how I see it from the conference floor, the fringe events, the bars and the coffee queue. If you’re following the blog from home, then please do send me your comments; disagree with me, agree with me, rant at me, rant with me. If you’re following it from conference itself, come and say hello and tell me how you think it’s going.

Conference isn’t about towing the party line, it’s about creating the party line, so make sure you have your say.

As an old pal once said, keep y’sels nice.

Jonathan

PS: Oh, by the way: To dampen any idea that this blog is in competition with the many other Labour blogs out there, I’ve added a link to Bloggers4Labour, where you’ll find a long list of other bloggers’ sites. Find the link on the right hand side of this page.