Ah, conference season. Your insider is a hoary veteran and has come to realise that each conference, like a fine wine, has its own special bouquet.
There is the post-election conference, either celebration or inquest. There are the midterm lulls, where the only entertainment is provided by the ambitious trying to impress both the leader and the media, while grumpy outsiders try to work out exactly how much rebellious muttering is appropriate. There are the big choice conferences, the results of which reverberate down the years. Denis Healey and James Callaghan facing down the left. Neil Kinnock destroying Militant. OMOV. Clause IV. The Election that Never Was.
This year is the pre-election shop window. We will all be on our very best behaviour. Even the fringes will be watchful, as Tory operatives with tape recorders will lurk in every audience. As a result, every speech a triumph, every announcement a final piece in the jigsaw of certain victory, the leader less mortal man, more prophet in his own land.
The downside to all this positivity is that it makes the conference gossip a bit dull. This is a good thing. The focus must be on persuading the folks at home, not on our own machinations. Even discussing the possible shadow cabinet reshuffle feels wrong. The line must be that they are all utterly fantastic. Right up until they are not wanted. Victory above all, yes?
This leaves rather little room for secure zone regulars. This September we exist to be geed up and to applaud enthusiastically, nothing more. I recommend a back-up plan for when you tire of the fixed grin and the extended ovation.
The pre-election conference is the perfect time to search for a future star. Seeing Chuka Umunna at a thinly attended fringe back when he was a Compassite rebel or Stella Creasy speaking on scouting is the political equivalent of catching Richard Ayoade or Josie Long at the Edinburgh festival at about the same time. You might have been the only one there, but you knew you would not be for long.
Yes, the pre-election conference is the X Factor boot camp for political hacks. This is your chance to play Simon Cowell (or Tulisa, should you be so inclined).
Who should you make an effort to catch now? Here are a few suggestions for names that might give you bragging rights at conference 2025.
First up, a representative of the new London left, London assembly member Tom Copley. One intriguing shift over the last few years is how far the London Labour party has moved left, not because the old left factions have strengthened, but because a new generation of socially and politically connected activists have emerged, strengthened by a combination of union and personal alliances and the support provided by the near two-decade dominance of Ken Livingstone.
Copley, since being narrowly elected to the assembly, has emerged as perhaps the most impressive of this group, pushing hard on housing issues. Owen Jones, but electable, you might say. Having decided not to stand for selection in Holborn and St Pancras, it will be worth watching to see where he believes his future ambitions lie.
The next group worth paying attention to are the energetic new candidates in marginal seats. There is quite a crop this year. Interesting, passionate candidates with accents and backgrounds – many of whom have been selected by all-women shortlists – that mark them out from the traditional image of a politician. It will be fascinating to hear how former RAF officer Sophy Gardner in Gloucester, former shopworker Lee Sherriff in Carlisle, or businesswoman Victoria Groulef in Reading West, translate their life experience into a political story with real resonance for voters.
Do not pay too much attention to what they say, though. It is election year, so they will be talking a lot about knocking on doors, listening to voters and all the other things candidates say to prove that their work ethic is unimpeachable. Frankly, if you had spent the last year staring at giant marrows so you can get into the West Wittering Gazette, you would want to point to the fruit and veg of your labour too.
No, watch out for how they speak, not what they say. The usual route is for the party to give them a chance to shine on conference floor, so they can get a good local media hit. But the real clue comes from the telly. The regional broadcast political editors know who has what it takes to stand out, so they will seek out the class of the field. Follow their lead, watch the regional reports, not just the national news and you will get ahead of the crowd.
Another group your insider will be keeping a close eye on are not exactly outsiders. Rather the reverse, in fact. Strong supporters of Ed Miliband’s leadership bid, like Southampton Itchen candidate Rowenna Davis and Aberconwy’s Mary Wimbury, will be interesting not just because they are smart (though they are), or because they are loyal (though they will be) but because the way they talk about the future will be a good guide to how the party really feels.
But the real joy of conference for an insider is not seeing the people you expect to be talented. It lies in hearing from the people who you have not heard of, who are doing extraordinary things, or who have something important and new to say.
In fact, the person who could be the star of conference future might well be reading this article right now.
So make sure you get up and speak. You never know, a jaded, cynical insider might be in the audience, eyes widening at your talents and eager to rush out afterwards to tell their friends.
Cartoon: Ian Baker
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