We ran the gauntlet of a silent protest of Tory students - a handful of them, some waving home-painted signs demanding 'Brown Out.' Some of these were discarded carelessly by the protestors, so I've ensured that at least one has been brought home to form the base of the cat litter tray for the next week. Really - back in the 80s, we had slogans and songs, we didn't just mope around. Students today, eh?
Far more Labour-supporting students were present inside the hall - not bussed in as the Tories do - once we'd dodged Krishnan Guru-Murthy and his camera crew, who were taking soundings from members on the new Labour slogan. My daughter and I amused ourselves by playing spot-the-politico and there were a few there - Lynda Waltho from ultra-marginal Stourbridge, Ian Austin, Pat McFadden, Geoffrey Robinson, Bob Ainsworth and Steve McCabe were all there, flying the flag. The main turns then appeared and took their seats amongst the audience.
This was an interesting shift, as they took turns to make their speeches from the floor amongst the members and guests, not sitting on the platform. Harriet Harman opened proceedings briefly from the platform, before handing over to Alistair Darling, then Alan Johnson, Yvette Cooper and Peter Mandelson all warming up for the main act and confirming their relative status within the party by their placing on the theatrical bill for the meeting.
Mandy was his usual, bullish self. He's not a boot boy in the Tebbit mould, but rather more fond of applying a well-turned John Lobb loafer to the sensitive areas of the Conservative Party. His speech was rather good, praising the employers and employees who have worked together to see their businesses through the recession by reducing hours and pay. Not unreasonably, he described them as the real heroes and promising the government's ongoing support to allow them to grow and pull us out of recession with active support for enterprise from a government that is committed to their future. Peter Mandelson may be called the Prince of Darkness, but he has been one of the shining lights in recent months, prepared to hit the radio and TV studios, taking the fight to the Conservatives through the media and not letting them have the media story all their own way. Magnificent stuff - and I look forward to more of it.
And then came the birthday boy, threading his way through the audience, shaking hands and enjoying the welcoming applause. He's far better in these smaller, more intimate venues and he's nowhere near as airbrushed as his opponent, but Gordon has clearly worked hard on his skills in performing on these big, theatrical occasions. But this is the thing about him - you aren't getting an android designed to look good on posters and spout media-friendly platitudes, this is a real human being, with human frailties and failings, but with that come the deeply-held beliefs and a background that has driven him to where he is now. He's not flash, just Gordon.
I liked his opening line about the Conservative liability, the Shadow Chancer, George Osborne, of whom it is apparently said that from a Tory point of view,
he has lost the art of communication, but not sadly, the power of speech
Those airbrushed photos of Dave were mentioned as the
greatest advertising money Labour never spent
and there were further brickbats thrown at the Conservatives, reminding us why they are unfit for power, as they chose cheap political point scoring over a meeting with other parties and expert, charitable stakeholders to discuss the future of long-term care for the elderly. That they preferred to sit aside rather than engage in the white paper over the vital High Speed Two line between London and Birmingham and beyond. He stressed that the Tory policies don't come without a price - a price that will be paid by ordinary families.
Like all his colleagues, he recognised that we cannot campaign on our record alone, but must look to the future too. Interestingly, he spoke about the force of the market and how it has worked for freedom and prosperity, but also about how it needs to be moderated by morals - it isn't just about price, but about values, too. We will seek a global agreement over a bank transaction levy. He promised that a Labour government will deliver on rebuilding and renewing infrastructure and encouraging new industries - renewable energy, biotech firms and the digital and creative industries.
Essentially, there are four key messages for the campaign ahead.
- Securing the recovery
- Supporting new industries and new jobs
- Cut the deficit but protect frontline services
- Act for the many, not the few
Shrewdly, he's turning his imperfections into positives by using them to stress that he comes from a relatively ordinary background.
I know where I come from, I know what I stand for, and I know who I came into politics to represent. And if you, like me, are from Britain's mainstream majority - from an ordinary family that wants to get on and not simply get by, then my message to you today is simple: take a second look at us and take a long hard look at them.
If this signals a decision by the party that we're going to fight for this election, that we haven't given in to the inevitable, as spun by the media, that we think that the future is still up for grabs, then we have to be out there, making the case, demonstrating that the Labour Party is the one party fit and capable of guiding this country through the recession and back to prosperity.
Nobody believes that this election will be easy or anything less than our most challenging election since I don't know when - 1992, perhaps? One thing is clear, we must give people good reasons to vote Labour. People may feel that change is necessary, but they aren't sold on the idea that the Tories are the answer. We need to show people that a protest vote to elect a Conservative government simply because they aren't Labour will impose real costs on families and other people in your area.