Where the reds play at home, by Kevin Meagher

MANCHESTER has had a good week. This is now the best Labour conference venue by a mile. Lots to do and easy to get to. And a place where beer is served as it should be: with a head on it. Take note you lager-guzzling southerners.

Not convinced? OK, it’s also a good Labour town too. In fact, about as resolutely Labour as you get. The only Lib Dem MP for the city, John Leach, even spoke at a fringe meeting earlier this week making the case for a future Lab-Lib co-operation. And he voted against his party’s coalition deal with the Tories. Might he come over? He used to work for McDonalds so he’s used to flipping.

The first ever trades union congress was held in Manchester (1868 at the Mechanics’ Institute, since you ask).  Marx and Engels knocked out part of The Communist Manifesto sat at the wooden desk in the window alcove of the reading room of the Chetham Library in the city centre.

Meanwhile Engels’s solo hit, the Conditions of the Working Class in England, was also penned in and about the city and surrounding towns. NEC stalwart Peter Wheeler (who was sadly squeezed off this year), reckons the pair were regular boozers at the Crescent pub over the river in Salford.  As Germans, it’s a fair bet they did not compere the comedy night.

So lots of stamps on the lefty bingo card for the rainy city. But there have only ever been four previous Labour conferences in Manchester. The first, in 1917, was a bit uneventful, let’s skip over that one. A year later though, the Labour bandwagon rolled back into town to agree the party’s constitution, (including the original clause four) and pledge to scrap the House of Lords.

Then you then have to skip forward a bit. To 2006 to be precise. This was Tony Blair’s final conference as leader. He liked Manchester: “A city that shows what a confident, open, and proud people with a great Labour council can do.” Two years later we were back again. This time it was Gordon’s turn with his “no time for a novice” speech.

So why has it taken so long to become a regular conference haunt? Simple, we got sidetracked into taking our annual jamboree to the seaside. Obvious really; cheap and plentiful accommodation and sea air is a great cure for nausea. When conference came north, it invariably meant a trip to Blackpool. Blackpool has more beds to rent out than the whole of Portugal. Of course, not everyone who visits Blackpool ends up sleeping in their own beds.

And for all those binge-drinking, vomit-speckled interlopers who blow into town and end up a bit poorly, it has the biggest NHS walk-in centre in the country too.

But enough about conference delegates. The place was deemed unfit for purpose by high-ups in both Labour and Conservative parties a few years back. Sure enough, there were aesthetic concerns from the metropolitan snobs. Compounded by the appalling inconvenience of having to change trains – yes, actually get on a second train – in Preston of all places – before the opinion-forming classes hit the Golden Mile.

But during New Labour’s pomp, conference was as much a trade fair as a delegate gathering. The hard monetary reality is that the party was turning away business because the Winter Gardens were too small for all the exhibitors who wanted to peddle their wares, no matter how many trestle tables they tried to shove in. The shortage of basics, like plug sockets, did not exactly help further the Winter Gardens’ cause either.

I once had my car lifted in the middle of the night by a couple of local leg-breakers tied to the hotel I was staying in who claimed my parking ticket was invalid. They wanted 200 quid to take me to where they had left it. Blackpool council’s trading standards’ response? To paraphrase Jake Gittes’ partner in the final scene of Chinatown, “forget it Kevin, this is Blackpool”.

So the conference ended up bouncing between those south coast hardy perennials Bournemouth and Brighton. The former, a redoubt of Toryism that often gives delegates a frosty welcome, never mind all those bloody hills. The latter, expensive and overrated, but, crucially, a convenient 50 minutes away for the London conoscenti.

Now cities are de rigueur. Manchester was quickest off the mark. A boom in affordable hotel places following the 2002 Commonwealth Games saw to that. Then Birmingham joined the circuit. And now Liverpool has got in on the act too, greedily hosting a couple of shindigs this conference season, playing host to our kith and kin in the TUC and those treacherous running dogs, the Liberal Democrats.

Next year our circus moves 35 miles down the M62 to the Liverpool Waterfront too. Let’s hope those dastardly Lib Dems have not left their sweaty sandals under hotel beds.

And, in 2012, when London will bask in the adulation of hosting the 30th Olympiad, the political action will again heads north as the conference returns to Manchester. Just as it should. Another home game for Labour.

Kevin Meagher was a special adviser to Labour ministers and has been to a lot of party conferences.

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