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Last Updated: Friday, 10 October, 2003, 10:54 GMT 11:54 UK
Conference stalwarts take a break
By Mark Davies
BBC News Online political reporter

There comes a point during the party conference season when you wake up and really aren't sure which town you're in.

After three weeks, it's time to go home
You know it's by the sea and it begins with a B. But beyond that everything tends to merge into one great bundle of bad food, late nights and several hundred thousand words from the great and the good.

For most of those who go to party conferences, it's a case of four or five days of speeches, fringe meetings and receptions.

But for a significant number of others - from exhibitors to journalists - it means three weeks of living out of suitcases with only brief interludes back home to catch up with loved ones.

Health Secretary John Reid had a tough job amid opposition to foundation hospitals, but made an impressive speech
"I don't know which town I'm in," said one exhibitor who preferred to remain nameless. "I'm totally knackered and I've forgotten what my family looks like."

Many exhibitors attended all three conferences
This year we started in Brighton with Charles Kennedy. Then Tony Blair hosted us all just down the coast in Bournemouth. And then we hauled ourselves up to Blackpool for four days with the Tories.

You might think each event would be very different: not so, to be honest. Each conference gives its leader a long standing ovation whether he's embattled or buoyant.

Brand new Lib Dem MP Sarah Teather got a huge ovation from delegates days after her by-election triumph. And very happy she looked.
Each conference has its fair share of rows and news-making fringe meetings. They all have a fair number of exhibition stands - though Labour, as the party of government, had many more than anyone else.

And they all have a lively social side, with the main conference hotel - the one where the leader stays - filling up in the early evening and getting fuller and fuller as the night, and then the morning, goes on.

The Tories enjoyed champagne and seafood
The conference venues also merge into one. Brighton's modern centre is not unlike Bournemouth's - though the latter is much easier to get lost in.

One day it took me a good 20 minutes to find the cash machine (located, naturally enough in the corner of the swimming pool arena next to the water-slide) when it was around 30 yards from my desk.

Tory chairman Theresa May said the Tories had been pulled up by the Raving Monster Loony Party for comparing them with the Lib Dems - "'We're loonies' they said. 'Not nutters.'"
On the day of Tony Blair's speech, the queues for the hall snaked all over the building and outside on to the cliffs.

But when it comes to getting lost, nowhere can beat Blackpool's Edwardian Winter Gardens, easily the most impressive venue with its Spanish Hall, Galleon Bar and airy walkways. Trouble is, it has so many nooks and crannies - and many of them look exactly the same - that what should be a simple journey to the sandwich stall becomes an arduous journey.

No question here - Tory representative Tim Metcalfe called for the return of hanging, and many in the hall seemed to approve.
Then there was the weather. In Brighton it was mild. In Bournemouth, for a couple of days at least, it was boiling. And in Blackpool the wind started to roar on the Sunday and the gales - enough to seriously impede your walking ability - lasted the week.

The press centre in Blackpool was chilly to say the least
There are other more obvious differences between the three conferences. Security is tighter, naturally enough, for Labour.

The Tories have a stall selling champagne, dressed crab, oysters and smoked salmon. The Lib Dems had recycling bins in the press area, which was chilly, but nothing like the arctic conditions in the Blackpool media centre, where some reporters wore scarves and woolly hats as they typed.

The NASUWT had pens which light up when you write, but then everyone had pens. One suggestion was the rum on offer from the Cuba Solidarity fringe meeting - but the freebie seen being used most often were the cloth bags from the International Fund for Animal Welfare
(At Labour conference, incidentally, the temperature in the press area was hot, while such was the demand for space among the media that many were stationed in the corridors).

Labour had more stalls than anyone else, from CND to mobile phone operators. Some of them had also been in Brighton, and were heading for Blackpool, but others had targetted Bournemouth and the governing party.

As a result, delegates in Bournemouth had a wider range of freebies to choose from - a vast array of pens, sweets, bags and notebooks. The favourite - which actually came in exchange for a small donation - were the furry fox cuddly toys from the League Against Cruel Sports.

Charles Kennedy had to step in at the last minute to tell a few gags at a Lib Dem fringe - and went down a storm
The best stall - and certainly the most imaginative - was that from the Police Federation, which had mocked up a police officer behind bars to highlight their concerns about the red tape getting in the way of the service.

For the stalwarts of each conference it had been a tough few weeks - but worthwhile.

Behind the scenes: The free coffee went down well
Emily Evans of the NUT said: "After three weeks I have metamorphosised into a 'stand person' - a specialist kind of being with a glazed look on their faces who has a dangerous tendency when returned to the real world to see everything as a giveaway or freebie and starts shop-lifting."

Teresa Perchard, policy director of the Citizen's Advice Bureau, said it had been "hard on the feet and legs".

But she added: "Conferences are always useful. You come across people who are involved in the Citizen's Advice Bureau, from funding the service via local government to working in centres.

Tony Blair did well on that front - but he couldn't beat Iain Duncan Smith's 20 standing ovations
"You have a very poor diet during the three weeks. We bring a bag of fruit with us to keep us going, and the sweets we hand out give delegates a quick sugar hit if they need it."

"I would not be here if it was not worthwhile. But I love it anyway because I love politics," said Beverley Priest of the charity Turning Point.

"We are here genuinely engaging in political discussion with different people from the different political parties. It is extremely worthwhile."


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