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Thursday, 10 October, 2002, 09:16 GMT 10:16 UK
Clapping and carping by the seaside

A month down the track and still the question remains - were the party conferences worth all the fuss?

The party faithful certainly had their weeks by the seaside trying to convince themselves somebody was listening to them.

The leaders made their big speeches, with varying results.

A star is born
And there were a couple of star turns - namely Bill Clinton for Labour and, astonishingly, Theresa May for the Tories.

But, as far as the big political picture is concerned, nothing of real significance has changed as a result of these rallies.

Real opposition

Britain is still likely to be bombing Iraq around the turn of the year, give or take, and private enterprise will still be building new hospitals and schools in an attempt to fulfil the government's election pledges.

The newly-militant unions will still be ignored or taken head on, and Charles Kennedy will still claim his party is now the real opposition.

The Tories, meanwhile, will still be battling to stop that nightmare from coming true.

So the short answer to the question: "did the conferences matter?" is, frankly, no - unless you are your party's leader.

The season kicked off with the TUC, which was dominated by suggestions that Tony Blair would be monstered over the public services and his warmongering over Iraq. He wasn't.

Not about to change
He did get one of the frostiest receptions ever handed out to a Labour leader and that cold shoulder spoke volumes about the distance between him and the wider Labour movement. But we already knew that.

In any case, as far as Tony Blair was concerned, he wasn't about to be diverted by what he clearly saw as a bunch of anachronistic lefties. So he wasn't.

Using the UN

He made his pitch over the two key issues and then left town without looking back or, apparently, giving a fig for what the comrades thought.

And it was the same only more so back in Blackpool three weeks later at the Labour party conference.

The prime minister bought off the worst revolt over Iraq by dangling the UN over the conference - a move which may only have postponed the rebellion, however.

It was significant simply because we now know more clearly than ever before that he has left the Labour movement way behind him.

One of his best
He now believes, possibly more than any of his predecessors in Number 10 since Churchill, that he really is the voice of the people.

In that sense it was a turning point for Labour, but of little or no consequence to voters.

Soon faded

As for the Lib Dems, Charles Kennedy made one of his best speeches, they passed a few resolutions and they attempted to get back onto the front foot over taxation.

Mr Kennedy may have succeeded in silencing the internal critics sniping over his laid back leadership style, but their week in Brighton soon faded.

First signs of life?
But then the only glimmer of movement - from the previously lifeless corpse of the Tory party.

Theresa May gave it to them straight from her black-clad hip. They were a disgrace and needed to pull themselves together. And they appeared to love it.

And there were some real policies announced that, one day, may even be put into practice. But representatives weren't allowed to vote on them.

Iain Duncan Smith rounded it all off with his leadership make-or-break performance which repudiated the Major years and the failures of the 1990s and told the "big beasts" who have been sniping at him to crawl back into the jungle and wither away.

Whether his performance will have finally ended the speculation over his leadership is still uncertain. But no one can doubt he did his best.

Warm up

And the truth is, these conferences have for years now simply been showcases for the leaders.


No matter how serious the challenges facing the parties - let alone the country - they are not addressed here

All the speeches and announcements are designed to be the warm up acts for the leaders' speeches.

And, no matter how serious the challenges facing the parties - let alone the country - they are not addressed here.

That happens elsewhere and usually behind closed doors.

Probably their greatest function - and it is one which serves their leaders' purposes - is as a pressure valve allowing grassroots party members to let off steam.

You can come to conference to criticise, carp and campaign.

Even better, you can clap, cheer and congratulate.

Just don't get the idea you can change.

Almost certainly Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy.

He went to conference with a big question marking hanging over his leadership style and ended it undisputed champion of all he surveyed (well, in Brighton, at least).

Here's betting the next poll once again shows him to be the most trusted of all three leaders.

Second place goes to Theresa May. A dreadful Commons performer who blossomed into a star turn in Bournemouth.

Without any doubt - Labour delegates and Tory representatives.

They came, they saw and they were flatly ignored while their leaders laid down the law.

Why do they keep coming back?

Former Tory Chairman and scourge of all liberals, Norman Tebbitt.

"I have never known the Tory party be disagreeable to homosexuals and other minorities.

"Indeed, if we had been there would not be so many homosexual Tory MPs."

Former GMTV presenter and would-be Tory MP Esther McVey.

She told the Tory conference: "The question I'm most frequently asked is 'What's a nice girl like you doing in a party like this?

"Two questions immediately come to mind. A party like what? And who are you calling a nice girl?"


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