By rights it ought to have been a pretty glum affair, this year’s Party Conference. Labour in the lead according to all the polls, and with an inbuilt 5% advantage. A by-election in Clacton which we are likely to lose. Another defection to UKIP just before conference began and a married minister forced to resign after “sexting” a Mirror journalist.
So I arrived in Birmingham for my usual visit expecting the worst. I’ve been to some depressing party conferences before. I first attended, with spectacularly bad timing, in 1998. One year on from a landslide defeat, and the Sun had a front page mock-up of William Hague as a dead parrot. Gallows humour abounded whilst our leader had the unenviable task of trying to make a convincing case that Tony Blair was going to be a one-term PM. But by far the worst was 2003, when I sat in the Tower Ballroom in Blackpool as IDS did his “quiet man turning up the volume” speech in front of a claque of Conservative Future types who were being choreographed to whoop and cheer after every sentence. It looked dreadful, and IDS was gone within a month.
In those days I used to go for the full stretch – the Party Convention meeting on the Sunday right through to the Leader’s speech on the Wednesday. Nowadays, with a family to think of and time off work at a premium, I only do a 24 hour slot. But you can still gauge the atmosphere, and this year, to my astonishment, was the most positive Conference I have ever attended.
Part of this is down to David Cameron and Boris Johnson being very visible and quite clearly working in synch. The party is clearly pleased that Boris is going to play a central role in Westminster after May and no-one gets the members on side as well as he does. I went to the London & South-East region reception. They were both there. There was shouting, cheering and foot-stomping that would not have looked out of place in a revivalist meeting. When DC said that we were going to take back Rochester and Strood in order to kick Mark Reckless’ “well-upholstered backside” there was a storm of applause. When Boris suggested that UKIP defectors were the sort of people who end up in A&E after committing vacuum cleaner abuse he got the biggest laugh of the evening. Everywhere I went the mood was the same – we can win, and we are damned well going to make sure we do win.
I think we now know clearly what we have to do. We have the only workable economic policy. It will be easy for CCHQ to plaster the country with posters of the Labour front bench advising the public not to let those fools Balls it up again. We, the members, candidates and councillors need to take the fight to UKIP on the streets. No genuine Eurosceptic would vote UKIP in a marginal constituency as it will let in Labour. If you want change in Europe, vote for us. If you want a referendum so you can vote to leave, vote for us. Nigel Farage is a brilliant opportunist politician, but a vote for him in May 2015 would be toxic for the UK. We need to fight him, and fight hard. Bring it on!