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Wednesday, 30 September, 1998, 11:03 GMT 12:03 UK
Platform for change as politics gets colourful
Labour's 1998 conference set
We'll keep the ... erm ... red, blue, pink, yellow flag flying here
Modern party politics is changing fast - and nowhere is this clearer than in this year's party conference season.

Where once conference halls allowed cabinet ministers to hide behind a politburo-style platform, this year's Labour conference has taken on a look that the uncharitable might describe as resembling a huge Battenburg cake.

Labour, currently considered among the world masters of the political hard sell, have spent months planning this year's Blackpool conference, right down to the playing of James Brown's I Feel Good when Tony Blair appeared for a session with delegates.

Keen to out-do their rivals, the Conservatives are believed to be planning a conference along the lines of a daytime television show, complete with coffee tables.

Getting the set right is essential if a party is going to sell its message and this year's season is shaping up into a classic battle between the Tories and Labour.

Chuck out the chintz

Both parties have ditched the austere long desks long loved by party leaders.

A labour party conference with a politburo style set
Very unfeng shui: The old approach
Gone are the days when the top brass peered out over the edge of the trenches, nervously eyeing the membership, which sometimes seemed like the enemy, on the other side of no-man's land.

This year's Labour set is long, low and colourful, with a single glass lectern at one end.

Tony Blair's cabinet is clearly visible sitting casually behind a desk to the right of a large bank of coloured squares, which change colour periodically during the day.

During Monday's morning session, the Prime Minister, his deputy and the Chancellor of the Exchequer sat photogenically in front of large letters proclaiming the General Election battle cry: "New Labour, New Britain". Sure enough, the picture made Tuesday's front pages.

Gordon Brown stands in front of a red background
Gordon Brown: Red for business
Whatever the costs, rumoured to be up to 100,000, the set's designer explained that it had a specific message to put to the electorate.

"Everything about conference is meant to be colourful, bright and friendly," said Bridget Sweeney.

"As a delegate you want to come to the conference and feel that you are involved.

"A lot of delegates will come to speak in front of thousands of people here or at home watching on television and it is essential the atmosphere is friendly."

Ms Sweeney's Labour Events Unit team has been responsible for creating a seamless image of branding from the exhibition hall to the colourful conference guide.

Labour's 1998 conference guide
Conference guide or holiday brochure?
During Monday's debates the coloured squares changed colour for each senior figure who stepped up to speak.

Gordon Brown got tough-cash-limits red, while Margaret Beckett, leader of the House, got Commons benches green.

Culture Secretary Chris Smith was bathed in an appropriately artistic yellow while Peter Mandelson, Trade and Industry Secretary, was surrounded by non-threatening turquoise.

In between sessions, the set glowed with an imperial purple, first used by Labour during the last days of the 1997 General Election campaign.

"The colours are an artistic choice rather than political," said Ms Sweeney.

Peter Mandelson at conference
Peter Mandelson: Calming turquoise
"We want to make the set as interesting as possible. A lot of the colours work well on television."

But at the same time, the party denies it is moving towards the razzamatazz seen at Democrat and Republican conventions in the USA.

"I think when you see those conferences, it is a case of the leadership being all up here, and the rest being all down there," said Ms Sweeney. "We want to make the speaker the most important person."

New true blue Tories

Meanwhile, Conservatives say their conference, beginning on October 6 in Bournemouth, will be far more radical than Labour's.

Tory Central Office claims brighter set colours and a much closer feel to the audience.

Conservative Party Conference 1993
Spot the politician: The Tories in 1993
"We've gone much further than Labour," said a spokesman. "Their set is rather flat and linear."

The Tory set, on the other hand, aims to reflect the theme that it is now the listening party; out has gone the blue party hues; in comes a more touchy-feely and thoroughly modern appearance.

"The set is intended to be consistent with a more open and inclusive party," said a spokesman.

"The desks of party officials and MPs are now off stage, very slightly raised and rotated round by 45%, looking in again at the speaker."

The party believes that viewers will see a party listening to the country rather than a party telling a country what to do.

The overall appearance will be "optimistic and new millennium", the spokesman added.

"It is a sign that the party is changing. Any business that organises a conference knows that it is a showcase.

"The set has to chime with what we are saying."

Grey is the new yellow

The Liberal Democrat tried for their Brighton conference to find a third way in conference design, combining elements of the old with some clean lines of the new.

Unfortunately for the party, critics such as The Guardian's Steve Bell likened the five grey slabs at the back of the stage to gravestones.

Paddy Ashdown addresses this year's Lib Dem conference
Party officials sat on four desks turned to face the speaker who addressed the audience from an isolated podium, down a small flight of stairs, strangely reminiscent of part of a Hollywood musical set.

Party leader Paddy Ashdown resisted any temptation to spin around in top hat and tails before tapping his way through the audience to show-stopping tunes from the movie greats.

Now that would have got him on the next day's front pages.

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