Monday, 01 October at Manchester Piccadilly. It was raining. I had a searing headache. Worst of all, I have had less than three hours sleep (again). On the whole, I have been feeling pretty deflated about my life for weeks now (cue the violin). I feel this preamble is necessary, even if personal, only because it set the scene for Labour’s Conference. I wondered around Manchester somewhat aimlessly until I finally managed to find Manchester Central, which was, as it happened, a huge conference centre. At that point, my despondency was matched by nervousness – I had never been to Conference, and had no idea what to expect. Then I realised that I probably ought to give some air of confidence and purpose so that I would earn some kind of respect (and possibly dignity). Equipped with my faux bonheur, I went through security.
Seconds later I bumped into Jon Cruddas and walked past Dennis Skinner. PAs were rushing past me with their iPads. It was strange how quickly I had passed into some kind of red bubble of politicos. I walked as briskly as I could, pretending I knew exactly what I was doing. I entered a large hall full of stalls. Luckily, Peter Hain was just beside me, so all the attention was on him and I was able to pass by rather quietly and avoiding a barrage of leaflets. At this point, my nerves had decided to leave the pit of my stomach and were replaced by butterflies of excitement. I continued through the hall to take a look around, but before I took anything in, I realised I was late for the scheduled speech of Ed Balls.
Once through the double doors to the Main Hall, I was in total darkness and heard a slow, sad and echoing voice. Very concerned, I turned to my left and saw a man dressed in a blue suit (which only added to the surrealism). He directed me towards a staircase that I hadn’t seen from the corner of my eye. I went up and took my seat, listening to the echoing voice of a councillor and waiting for the Shadow Chancellor. And waited. 40 minutes late, Chuka Umuna took to the stage in a short, low key speech, before handing over to Ed Balls. The Shadow Chancellor’s speech was good, I thought. Balls isn’t the most charismatic man in the world, but his speech was sensible. I was more than happy with his assessment of what was needed for the British economy: a growth strategy through real infrastructure investment. The speech was shorter than I expected, but then again, I had no concrete idea of what to expect.
After his speech, I deftly flicked through my fringe guide and walked as fast as I could to one of the large meeting rooms next to the Exhibition Area. There was nothing faux about my sense of purpose this time: I had every intention of securing a free lunch at a fringe event. As luck would have it, I managed to get into a high profile one featuring Danny Finkelstein, Alastair Campbell and Lord Mandelson. Plus a free buffet lunch and coffee. The talk was really interesting, where Campbell came across very honestly about why Labour lost the general election in 2010. With anti-depressants finally in my veins thanks to the coffee, I was much more intrigued by Conference and scurried all around to get into discussions with people. I ended up in a long conversation from someone from the Howard League and their work to reform penal law. I also saw Alastair Campbell on a rowing machine. That was surreal, if slightly amusing. Sadly I couldn’t speak to him – others were eagerly haggling for his attention while he tried to catch his breath. After an hour and half of swooping around, the effect of the coffee wore off, which meant that my temporary good mood also decided to bow out. Bored, I went back into the Main Hall. Failing to concentrate, my mind played all sorts of gymnastics in my head. Changing tactic, I got out my fringe guide to coax out my earlier excitement at some of the events I wanted to go to: debates, panels, talks, discussions, speeches… All top stuff, although the only one on available on Monday at 4.30pm was an event on social media effectiveness full of older members of the Party to get some tips. Sigh. Finally it turned 6pm and I dashed off to meet my friend. We went for a meal at reliable Whetherspoons and ended the night by going to a left-wing bloggers’ karaoke party. A geeky, strange affair – geeky because of the bloggers, strange because at one point I heard Owen Jones singing to his heart’s content. It was 2.30am when we finally got home.
The following morning at 8am, I sat in the Hilton Hotel listening to the British Humanist Association. My free croissant and coffee were accompanied by a throbbing headache. At one point I wasn’t sure whether or not it had been worth getting up at 6.45am. My friend obviously didn’t think so, who decided to rock up at 11am, by which point I had been to two fringe events and had (another) coffee with a friend (who is, bizarrely, a veryactive Tory – she just loves conferences and arguments, I concluded).
At 2.30pm, it was time for the Leader’s Speech. It was fantastic. It was well-presented, well-thought-out and impeccably well-timed. It really delivered on everything that it needed to. Most importantly, a good speech is what I needed to reinvigorate my waning passion for politics that gripped me recently. My friend, and all the other people around me, were buzzing. We have a Leader of the Opposition who has the very real opportunity to become prime minister. Of course we were all in the Conference bubble, so it could all be twaddle. But I went to a fringe event afterwards where Tim Montgomerie, the ConservativeHome blogger, praised Ed Miliband. He thought the Tories were in real trouble. All other panellists – journalists, academics and shadow ministers – were genuinely impressed. Most of Tuesday evening was spent at fringe meetings going over One Nation Labour. I met my friend later too, and ended up staying out until 3.30am in discussions with various bloggers. At one point Hugh Grant walked past me to go to the toilet. CLAIM TO FAME.
On Wednesday, the fringes carried on. I ended up meeting Will Straw and a couple of other figures. Then I saw a friend to discuss a student policy network. My enthusiasm for all things politics was slowly making a comeback. The faux bonheur was almost entirely replaced by genuine (even if temporary) good spirits. We had lunch together and then I went to a fringe event to hear about the consequences of One Nation Labour for the British economy – with Polly Toynbee (who went on tribalist rants against the Tories, leaving me unimpressed) and Maurice Glasman (excellent speaker, complementing One Nation Labour with ‘One Nation Economics’ very well). After that event finished, I rushed back to the Exhibition Area to get into the next fringe meeting about environmental sustainability and economic growth. Chuka Umuna was there. As was free wine. I got chatting to a student from York University, who seemed very nice (but wouldn’t shut up when the panellists were talking, so our friendship was short-lived). 7.30pm and slightly tipsy, I stumbled out the conference centre and met my friend for dinner.
Last night of Conference meant that there would be a massive night out, organised by Labour Students. The most controversial moment came when Labour Students announced the raffle prize: a signed copy of A Journey, by Tony Blair. Half the room booed ferociously, the other cheered with equal vigour. It was interesting, if only because everyone had cheered in unison earlier in the night when Things Can Only Get Better blasted through the speakers.
All in all, I enjoyed Conference. The first day not so much. The atmosphere in general seemed a little bit anxious, and definitely not enthusiastic (regardless of my personal attitude). The Leader’s Speech smashed it though. Tuesday evening and all of Wednesday was full of vibrant buzz and ideas. Thursday morning I arrived in Sheffield with a renewed sense of optimism that Labour will get things going for the whole country.