After attending the both the smallest Lib Dem conference and the smallest Labour conference I have ever been to, I was preparing myself for a mammoth Conservative Party conference – all of the corporate interests and political energy has to have somewhere to go, right? But I still wasn’t ready for what I’ve found here in Birmingham.
British political commentators post-Corbyn like to talk about the emerging “one party state”. But it’s one thing to talk about it in the abstract – quite another to come face to face with it. In Liverpool there was barely any security at all; here, it’s like trying to get in to see a paranoid, mega-wealthy recluse. Half of Birmingham is behind the secure zone. It doesn’t feel like a big conference – it feels like a titanic conference, the centre of the universe, the only game in town.
All of the public affairs people are out in previously unseen numbers. The exhibitions stands from the corporate giants are on display. And I know Corbynistas will take it as a triumph that these people didn’t bother with Labour conference this year (and probably won’t again any time soon), but it really isn’t. It’s a sign from most people who make a living trying to predict these sorts of things to say they think that there is no way Labour will form a government any time soon.
This is all very new. In the last parliament, Conservative conference always felt like the biggest – but only marginally. With the Lib Dems in government, suddenly their conferences began to feel in the same league as the other two; Labour was fresh from having been in government for thirteen years, and were convinced the 35% strategy was going to get them back into Downing Street next time round, so their conference was still a really big deal.
I know many of you reading this will say, “Who cares about party political conferences anyhow? No one cares about them other than people who actually work in politics”. I take your point, but the problem is they are actually good indicators of where things stand – you can get a sense of a party and its mood from a conference that you cannot get any other way. If you had asked me right after the 2014 conference season how the next election would go, I would have said small Tory majority. Labour conference felt so flat, and the Tory one so optimistic, you could see it all coming. Of course, I allowed that impression to fade to the point where it felt surprising when the general election gave us just that.
Next year, I suspect Tory conference to even bigger and the contrast with Labour conference even greater. And the next year, a greater disparity still. Until the Corbyn ends, that’s how it’s going to be.