PEOPLE think going to conference, when it’s sunny and in Brighton, is just a day out of the office for a hack, an afternoon sitting in front of the Grand Hotel, feeling important, sipping from a jug of lemonade.
At every turn there’s something to digest, not about policy so much, more about who is going for what seat where. Some of these briefings can be pretty harsh and it’s sometimes as if Labour would do better just to get a slate of candidates and be done with it, rather than setting themselves up for months of quarrels. Good copy for newspapers and blogs, yes, but surely a distraction for the party.
When Monday’s warm sun eventually dipped, one parliamentary Labour face with a distant link to Camden politics was spotted having a canoodle on the promenade, just like one of the uni freshers exploring Brighton for the first time this week.
But a spot of romance was lost among members poring over Damian McBride’s memoir about his naughty inbox rifling.
Hey, the ol’ Gospel Oak spinmeister Alastair Campbell must have felt quite saintly with his charity 7am running clubs, as each painful line of McBride’s book dribbled out. As much as everyone stamped on McPoison, the truth is the backstabbing spirit, to some measure, can infect all selection contests. It’s part of politics in all parties and it’s not going to change, however haughty people sound about McBride.
You can’t win a constituency race without a few quiet words here and there, if we’re all honest. You’ll find a flavour of it in the Labour selection in Brentford at the moment, and certainly in Brent Central. This cloying atmosphere of “who gets what” eventually leads to a question for Camden: Will he? Won’t he? And just how big is the queue going to be when Frank Dobson, whether next year or in 15 years, decides to step down?
The sharp gossip in the hotel bars was conducted by some as if Frank had already sounded the signal, the talk being that some announcement will be made after the rush of next May’s council elections.
But I like the disdain he shows for all of this, the rise above it all, the willingness to let a guessing game run, while dropping clues here and there. He knows how people think about his seat but he’s earned the right to do things on his terms, and without beady eyes sizing up his office curtains while he’s still busy fighting the government on HS2.
And it distracts from what Camden Labour people were doing here. Sarah Hayward – who publicly rules herself out of any 2015 general election run for any seat anywhere, got that? – was manning (probably the wrong word here) meetings set up to increase the number of women in politics.
It is also suggested private haranguing by London council faces, most prominently from Camden, led to the pledge to axe the Bedroom Tax being brought forward to this conference.
But when you get to the bar, when the lemonades are poured, all most people want to talk about is: who and where… and what’s happening with Frank.