A Labour activist at Tory conference, by Amanda Ramsay

Tory activists flocked to their annual political pilgrimage in Birmingham this week, for David Cameron’s first party conference as Prime Minister. Despite 13 years of opposition leading to a coalition rather than a Conservative government, this was a big moment for Tory activists. But for a paid-up member of the Labour party, the prospect of attending my first ever Tory conference filled me with dread. Politics is nothing if not tribal and the prospect felt so alien.

Once in Birmingham, the atmosphere was much the same as the intoxicating buzz of most Labour conferences in recent memory, other than 2010 perhaps, the leadership election having engulfed proceedings. However, there were some distinct differences about the Conservative version.

For starters, the exhibition itself had a bizarre array of interest groups, hard to imagine at a Labour conference: the British fur trade association, countryside alliance and Carlton club to name but three. Harvey Nichols also had a stand as did Crombie, offering made-to-measure clothing for ladies and gents. I don’t think we have a Harvey Nicks at our conference.

Other distinguishing cosmetic factors included men on the whole wearing better suits; their solid gold, crest-emblazoned signet rings, symbolic of real or imagined family heritages, all adding to an air of old school wealth and expensive education.

The Hyatt Regency, being the main conference hotel where the PM and cabinet members were staying, was my home away from home too. One fellow resident was George Osborne. Holding court in the Hyatt bar on the Sunday night, the chancellor exuded a relaxed, happy confidence. This was a man who appeared very much in control. Little did any of us know that the speech he’d deliver the next day would dominate the entire conference. Appearing on BBC Breakfast News just hours later, Osborne surprisingly pre-empted his own conference speech by announcing the scrapping of child benefit for higher earners.

By Monday daytime, the media circus was in full swing, with leader of the hack pack, Michael Crick, aggressively chasing the children and families minister, Tim Loughton, through the corridors of the Hyatt and ICC (the conference centre), trying to expose an absence – on live TV – of any prior knowledge about this huge policy u-turn.

The British electorate dislike disunited parties, a truth seemingly forgotten by Conservative strategists this week. On the very day of his much anticipated first speech as PM, Cameron was forced to make an off-script apology to mothers, deploying the Tory megaphone to speak to ‘middle England’ via the front page of the Daily Mail. It all looked a bit tatty and at times utterly chaotic.

Listening to Dave’s speech was nothing if not depressing. The austere, grey-blue back-drop was reminiscent of the days of 80s Thatcherism, but his message was far worse. Last week Labour’s new leader Ed Miliband very cleverly said of Cameron: “you were the optimist once.” And, indeed, the PM seemed to speak of little this week but pain.

Popping outside the secure zone for a coffee, a journalist stopped me in the street, wanting to film me talking about my three biggest political concerns. After expressing my fears to camera, over welfare cuts, particularly housing benefit and the prospect of homelessness and unemployment rising, the journo enquired if I was a member of the Conservative party? Laughing, I declared my Labour membership. He laughed too and said: “You’re far too compassionate to be in the Conservative party.” I was glad of the distinction.

In a close of conference interview, Andrew Neil challenged party chairman, Baroness Warsi, about losing a massive numbers of Tory members since David Cameron became leader in 2005 (she astonishingly did not realise that membership was down by a third, to 177,000). This sealed the deal for me; far from a party victorious; the Conservatives are on the decline and are disunited to boot.

Having promised not to cut child benefit just months ago during the general election campaign, a commitment reiterated by the LibDems at their annual conference only last month, the Tories look like they’re making policy on the hoof. The Conservative party’s election manifesto made assurances of no top-down reorganisation of the NHS. Yet the NHS White Paper seeks swingeing reforms in the management of primary health care, totally contradicting the election promise and allowing privatisation through the backdoor.

The likes of Osborne and co must have relished the Labour leadership campaign, with key members of the opposition distracted by round the country tours and countless speaking engagements. But Ed Miliband hit the nail on the head in his first leader’s speech when he reminded us that Labour still managed to deny the Conservatives a majority in May. A fact often forgotten by Tory ministers when they decry Labour’s mismanagement of the economy, despite Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling having saved our country from bankruptcy during a global crisis.

Parliament returns on Monday, with a new Labour leader and shadow cabinet team at the helm. A very interesting Parliamentary session lies ahead. Let’s hope Ed Miliband has been practising his ‘human’ and readying his new shadow cabinet for the fight of our political generation. If nothing else, attending a Tory conference just added to my Labour resolve.

Amanda Ramsay was a cabinet member in the London Borough of Merton.

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5 Responses to “A Labour activist at Tory conference, by Amanda Ramsay”

  1. John Cook says:

    Sadly Countryside Alliance usually do have a stall at Labour Party Conference – Its usually easy to spot it bacause its the one with no visitors!

    Don’t envy you your week.

  2. In fairness, the Countryside Alliance have done some good work on rural housing and they were giving out some literature on that at conference. It’s just that they’re reluctant to really promote it properly because they want to keep using fieldsports as a wedge issue for the Tories and because their active members are largely indifferent or hostile to affordable housing, rural public transport and similar things.

  3. Mozza says:

    It must have been an interesting time to take a look at the Tory conference. As well as Baroness Warsi being struck dumb by Andrew Neil on TV you could have seen Theresa May in simular mode when asked the very same question by Paxman regarding “when did you first hear of George Osborne’s plan?” Warsi and May held tightly closed lips because they could not say that they had heard a word in cabinet. These are two senior women who are put forward as the face of the Tory party! Heaven help the country. Both are harder and grimmer than any man.

  4. Amanda Ramsay says:

    Yes, Edward, I agree re the Countryside Alliance and rural housing, they were explaining there pro-countryside issues work at Tory Conference

  5. Martin Whelton says:

    Must have been an awful experience having to visit the Tory party conference and anyone from a left perspective who’s been finds it an eye opener. As for the U turns, it’s policy making on the hoof, no doubt next week will being another one and most of them, as ever seem to have been done on a back of an envelope and quickly unravel as the more questions are asked. Doesn’t surprise me they have that few members, indeed it wouldn’t surprise me if that includes duplicates as you can join different Tory assoications without living in the place.

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