You will have spotted that I’m not at conference which seems to have surprised many. A few years ago it would have surprised me; I used to love conference, and from 1997 until 2002 I was a regular attendee. Then in 2003 I just didn’t go. No particular reason, I just never got a pass or booked a B&B.
The next, and last, time I went was 2005 in Blackpool.
There are lots of reasons I stopped going. I sometimes joke that I’m too old to enjoy the party but too young to enjoy the conference. And there is certainly some truth to that. I never sat in the hall listening to speeches (when I did listen it would be from a bar with coverage on the TV). The reason I liked conference was the networking, the late nights and the fact that it was, very much, a week-long party for the faithful. And I’m much much too old for that now.
There are other reasons, of course, I have referred to my loss of political ambition around the time I stopped going (although I didn’t associate them until now) and now I have a family it’s not as easy to just go away for a week.
But definitely amongst the reasons I stopped going was the party’s decision to stop holding conference at Blackpool.
I’m not naïve about the decision. I know, for example, that there’s no reason they were ever held at Blackpool (or Brighton or Bournemouth) other than the happy co-location of lots of cheap B&Bs and conference facilities. I know there was a symbolism in the shift to Manchester and Birmingham.
And, deep down, I know that Blackpool was far from an ideal venue. But doesn’t mean I don’t miss it.
My association with Blackpool is mainly through party conference. I’d been there once as a child, on a day trip to see the illuminations through my father’s ‘club’ (I’m not sure if places like the Athaneum or Carlton offer such trips for the children of members, but the British Rail Social Association certainly did). But when I went in my early twenties as a delegate to the National Union of Students conference my eyes were opened.
It was great, you had student politics and alcohol all concentrated into one place and one week. Sleeping four to a room in a cheap B&B wasn’t ideal, but by two or three in the morning that didn’t really matter.
So when I discovered that party conference was a similar deal, but with better sponsors and my own en suite room, I was sold and Blackpool became a regular destination.
It’s hard to pinpoint why I love Blackpool, since it’s not a place I would recommend for tourism. Particularly when its location leaves it prone to gales and torrential downpours. But I think there is a Blackpool state of mind, an attitude.
Blackpool knows what it is, and is proud – not ashamed – of it. With many places you have a sense that all you’re seeing is a façade, a sanitised veneer, with the ‘real’ place hidden away. Like thinking London is nothing more than the West End or that New York and Manhatten are coterminous.
But Blackpool doesn’t have that pretence. It is all there for you too see. It’s garish and loud, but proudly garish and loud. It’s kitsch and in your face – I know of no other place where sex-aids are sold alongside kiss me quick hats.
It is a different world to the one most Conservative (and I’d guess Labour) Party Conference delegates know. And I think most delegates are better for seeing it, even if only for a few days.
And it’s a world I think it’s impossible not to enjoy. Regardless of the luxury you might be used to normally, a stay in a seaview B&B and blusterly strolls along the promenade are impossible not to enjoy. Before the rise of package holidays and cheap flights Blackpool was an a premier destination for holiday makers – our Las Vegas – because it was unadultered and unashamed fun.
There is part of me that regrets not going to conference this year, as much because I know so many people going corporately as the politics. And while I’m sure, sooner or later, I’ll be going to conference again I don’t think I’ll ever enjoy it quite as much as those blusterly weeks in Blackpool.