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Thursday, 10 October, 2002, 08:41 GMT 09:41 UK
Signing off from the seaside

As he retires after a distinguished career with the BBC, Nicholas Jones looks back at the highs and lows of 30 years of reporting on the annual political party conferences.
For a political groupie like myself, nothing can quite match the impact of a thunderous political speech or an electrifying moment on the fringe.

Attending party conferences has been an integral part of my life since the late 1960s, and perhaps not surprisingly I have my own hit list of the not-to-be-missed events which I have witnessed.


News output on television and radio from those early conferences was a fraction of what it is today

For an emotional high, I would probably choose Margaret Thatcher's first conference speech as party leader in 1975.

Her election as the first woman to lead a major political party broke the mould of British politics.

Inevitably her first address to the party faithful was a tense moment and there was a palpable sense of relief when she delivered a competent performance and showed a commanding grasp of the path she wanted the Conservatives to follow.

Three years later it was Jim Callaghan's speech to the annual TUC congress in Brighton which provided the seminal moment of the conference circuit and paved the way for his defeat by Mrs Thatcher.

The TUC had expected the prime minister to use his address to announce the date of an October general election.

Instead he teased the delegates by singing a Marie Lloyd ditty: "There was I, waiting at the church..."

Defensive

By ignoring union warnings about looming industrial confrontation, Callaghan ended up making a tactical mistake.

Thatcher: First conference speech was tense moment
By the time he finally went to the country in May 1979, the Labour government had been blown off course by the "winter of discontent".

A year later, facing a deepening recession and rising unemployment, Mrs Thatcher was on the defensive.

But she was ready with an unforgettable line which was to enter political folklore: "For those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the U-turn, I have only one thing to say. You turn if you want to. The lady's not for turning."

News output on television and radio from those early conferences was a fraction of what it is today.

Primitive

There was no breakfast television and none of the non-stop news services like BBC News 24 or Radio 5 Live.

Callaghan: Tactical mistake
When I first started attending conferences in the late 1960s I was a parliamentary reporter for The Times and a fast shorthand note was essential.

Conditions were quite primitive. We used to sit at trestle tables just below the platform.

Usually all that separated us from the politicians was a bank of flowers supplied by the local parks department.

Now reporters are out of sight, banished to the wings as the political parties are determined to show off their high-tech sets to maximum advantage.

Demands

Live television coverage is a critical factor in the timing of speeches and no opportunity is missed.


In the 1990s we watched the blood letting among the Tory hierarchy as the eurosceptics took on the pro-Europeans

Last year, within an hour and a half of the attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, Tony Blair addressed TUC delegates from the very same platform used 22 years earlier by Jim Callaghan.

No other western prime minister or president had developed a better understanding of the demands of the electronic news media and Blair seized his moment.

From the Brighton conference centre, he spoke directly to a global audience of unprecedented proportions and became the first world leader to speak coherently and with real authority about the dangers which mass terrorism posed to democratic nations.

The conference fringe has provided some electrifying moments. In the late 1980s every reporter wanted a seat for speeches by Michael Heseltine.

Defeats

We were always waiting to see whether he was about to mount a challenge for the leadership of the Conservative Party; in the 1990s we watched the blood letting among the Tory hierarchy as the eurosceptics took on the pro-Europeans.


The Conservatives do seem to be emerging from the dark days of despair after being annihilated at two general elections

So what of this year's conferences? The contrast between Labour's gathering in Blackpool and the Conservatives' conference in Bournemouth could not have been sharper.

Blair suffered three rare defeats on the private finance initiative for the public services.

Iain Duncan Smith faced no such embarrassments: Conservative conferences are now a vote-free zone as there are not even any resolutions.

But it has been the most well disciplined Tory conference for a decade. And that perhaps is an important pointer to the future: the Conservatives do seem to be emerging from the dark days of despair after being annihilated at two general elections.


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