It always feels good to get home after Tory conference every year, having successfully survived not only the Conservative conference but those that preceded it. One of the most interesting things about going to the different party conferences is seeing how much they vary in feeling on the ground compared to how they often get reported. The political press often coalesces around a single narrative each year: this time it’s Labour unity and energy versus Tory exhaustion. I didn’t quite find that myself. There was a lot more tension at Labour than has been discussed elsewhere – a lot of people feeling like there were many questions that needed answers but that in the current climate they felt unable to openly ask. One older activist told me in hushed tones that she worried about how much it all felt like the period before the 1992 election, when there was an assumption post-Thatcher that a Labour victory was inevitable, which obviously turned out not to be be the case.
Having had a little over a week to reflect on things, this year’s Labour conference really reminded me of the 2015 Tory conference. Confidence was high and triumphalism filled the air in Manchester two years ago – but just under the surface were a lot of nagging questions no one wanted to explore just yet. What about the EU referendum and the havoc that would almost certainly bring for the party? Never mind – Cameron and his heir apparent Osborne were masters of the universe having won an election no one thought they could; somehow it would all come good.
Two years later, neither Cameron nor Osborne are even MPs any longer, never mind running the country. Things can change very quickly in politics – and the pace of that is gathering steam. It might feel like Labour is on top today – there is certainly no guarantee the reverse won’t be true tomorrow. Particularly as the fears that sat in the background at 2015 Tory conference were eerily similar to the ones hovering around Brighton last week. Fragile party unity built on nothing but electoral success that could be blown apart by the big issues of the day, particularly Europe; a leader that despite his recent electoral success was still disliked or at least distrusted by a significant portion of the party; real questions about the party’s identity and what it was actually trying to achieve in real policy terms.
Tory conference this year was reflective and searching. It should worry Labour activists a lot more than it does that their conference was filled with a conviction that everything was perfect within it, given it had just sustained a third general election loss in a row.