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Party on? A history of political conferences in Blackpool

As Labour’s autumn assembly draws to a close in Liverpool it marks the end of another conference season that Blackpool has missed out on. Kevin Gopal writes how the town became a mainstay for the annual political events in post-war Britain, and questions whether our new £30m conference centre is enough to bring them back

“We are witnessing a deliberate attack on our values, a deliberate attack on those who wish to promote merit and excellence, a deliberate attack on our heritage and great past. And there are those who gnaw away at our national self-respect, rewriting British history as centuries of unrelieved gloom, oppression and failure.”

Not the words of a post-Sunak Conservative Party leader to conference in 2025 but of Margaret Thatcher, delivering her first conference speech as leader in the Winter Gardens in 1975.

Thatcher began her red-baiting speech that year with memories of Blackpool that went back even further. Her first visit to conference was in 1946 as an undergraduate representing Oxford University Conservative Association.

“I had no thought of joining the lofty and distinguished people sitting up there,” she said, later recalling being “entranced” by the experience.

Also in 1975 her fellow Conservative Norman Fowler made his debut speech from the platform in what he called “the best political conference hall I know”. But if Blackpool’s place in the history of political conferences is assured, what of its future?

The Tories’ 1975 conference showed the party was on an “unmistakable rightward course”, said New York Times journalist Bernard Weinraub at the time, watching it unveil a “new version of what has been called right‐wing Tory radicalism”. That’s not an inaccurate description of the party’s direction outlined only a few days ago in Birmingham, with ministers openly promoting conspiracy theories about 15-minute cities and inventing non-existent meat taxes to ban.

When he arrived for the 1963 conference first secretary Rab Butler reportedly checked in to the Imperial Hotel suite booked for his boss.

The Lib Dems were in Bournemouth and Labour brings the conference season to an end this week in Liverpool. Blackpool has slipped off the roster for parties’ main conferences. Will a future party leader once again set out her stall in the Winter Gardens as clearly as Thatcher in 1975?

Labour held its first main conference in Blackpool in 1927 but it was not until the post-war era that the town became a mainstay for the parties, joining Bournemouth, Brighton and other coastal resorts as venues of choice. They could offer relatively cheap accommodation for delegates as the summer holiday season had drawn to an end. The conferences, held while the Commons was in recess, were a more important feature of the political landscape than now, with serious policy debates for Labour, much anticipated speeches from party heavyweights and careers to be launched (not always with a smooth trajectory – Fowler enjoyed being beside the seaside in 1975 but Thatcher sacked her from the shadow cabinet shortly afterwards).

At the 1946 conference that so entranced Thatcher, Anthony Eden’s speech on “the property-owning democracy” sought to establish a path back to power for the party that had endured a landslide loss to Labour the year before.

Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell unsuccessfully sought to overturn his party’s commitment to Clause IV of its constitution at its Blackpool conference in 1959. The clause committed the party to public ownership of the means of production in the economy and remained policy until its leader Tony Blair once more launched a bid to remove it in his Blackpool speech in 1994.

The Winter Gardens was hot with gossip in 1963 over who would be Harold Macmillan’s successor should ill health force him to stand down – although the prime minister wanted to stay on. On the eve of his planned speech, Macmillan was forced to have an operation, now telling close colleagues – and rivals – he would have to step down. When he arrived for the conference, one of them, first secretary Rab Butler, reportedly checked in to the Imperial Hotel suite booked for his boss.

Alec Douglas-Home read out his bosses resignation letter to a stunned Blackpool audience in Blackpool in 1963. Photo: Number 10

When foreign secretary Alec Douglas-Home unexpectedly read out Macmillan’s resignation letter to a stunned Blackpool audience, he set a number of challengers for the leadership running, including himself. Butler’s speech to conference – for which the BBC interrupted Grandstand to report excerpts – did not impress a feverish Winter Gardens and elicited one headline that read “Butler fails to rouse Tories”. Butler checked out; self-starter Douglas-Home prevailed and became prime minister.

Conference in 1965 was an altogether more relaxed affair for Richard Crossman, cabinet minister in a Labour government led by Harold Wilson that had narrowly won the election that Macmillan could not contest. A notable diarist, Crossman wrote on 23rd September that the “Blackpool conference really started for me when Tommy [Balogh, Labour peer], his wife and I went round to No 10 and up to Harold’s room”. Wilson, he continued, “was his friendly, cosy self with us all and we sat round drinking brandy until we moved up to Euston and got on to the sleeper”.

They disembarked at Preston to be met by the mayor, Crossman unshaved and unwashed, before being driven to Blackpool, where he attended the usual Friday before the conference meeting of the powerful National Executive Committee.

“As usual we spent endless time discussing resolutions which would obviously never be reached,” wrote Crossman, adding: “I am pretty used to Conference now and being hardened I just opt out of the evening entertainments and endless trade-union dinners”.

What he couldn’t opt out of, however, was attending to the regular red boxes of documents that all ministers must complete. Crossman doesn’t record which suite he stayed in in Blackpool but got through the red boxes “by having a little table stuck in the bathroom where Jennie [Hall, his secretary for many years] could type”.

Denis Healey might have wished for dull NEC meetings and distracting evening entertainments at Labour’s Blackpool conference of 1976. With the government desperate to save a plunging pound and inflation reaching 25 per cent, Healey as Chancellor had been forced to beg the International Monetary Fund for a £2.3 billion bailout loan, promising in return drastic budget cuts that angered many on the left of his party.

The big beast Healey didn’t so much try to bring his comrades round in Blackpool as trample all over them, telling delegates that Labour cuts were the only alternative to the more drastic ones a Thatcher government would implement.

“If you don’t want those alternatives then you’ve got to stick with the policies you’ve got. I am going to negotiate with the IMF on the basis of our existing policies, not changes in policies,” said Healey.

Rachel Reeves might have studied Healey’s speech as she drew up her current plans to miraculously rescue the country without spending any money. Rishi Sunak may even have studied his transport arrangements, as he made what the brilliant political journalist Ian Aitken called a “dash to Blackpool and back by plane”.

Healey won that day but eventually Thatcher’s cuts arrived, with her election in 1979 – yet not before Blackpool saw the launch of another political career.

It is the party of the right that is the “party of radicalism and change”, said the young Conservative to the Winter Gardens in 1977. Perhaps foreshadowing the Tories’ attack on Labour’s imagined meat tax, he claimed to have found a school he didn’t name, “which I think is in London, where pupils are allowed to win just one race each, no more, for fear the others might feel inferior”.

William Hague was early in his attack on wokeism in 1977

William Hague was only 16 when he made that speech but his credentials to lead his party were evident, making for a huge media splash. Or even huger than usual, because party conferences were by now a big deal for broadcasters, and therefore for the country. For at least one young geek – who remembers Hague as scarily worrying – uninterrupted hours of test match cricket on BBC giving way to uninterrupted hours of party conferences (plus the TUC) on BBC were a surer sign of summer giving way to autumn than putting the fire on.

Hague fulfilled his Blackpool destiny – despite a blip only uncovered many years later when declassified government papers showed Thatcher had blocked his application to become a spad to the Chancellor at the age of 21. “No,” she wrote on a letter from a Treasury official, emphasising it with a characteristic triple-underlining. “This is a gimmick and would be deeply resented by many who have financial-economic experience.”

The 2002 conference was notable for daunting post-9/11 airport-style security and a surprise 10.55pm appearance by Bill Clinton at the Boardwalk McDonald’s following his address to delegates earlier that day.

Hague became an MP in 1989 and party leader following the Conservatives’ election defeat in 1997, returning to Blackpool in 1999 where he told conference that in addition to the five “common sense guarantees” he had already set out, he could announce a sixth. “The Blackpool Guarantee. We’re coming back to Blackpool every other year. Long after the Labour Party has become too snobbish to go almost anywhere in the country, we’re coming back to Blackpool.”

The Conservatives were, unusually as good as their promise, until 2007 – the end of an era for Blackpool. Labour gave up on the town after 2002, a conference notable for daunting post-9/11 airport-style security to get a drink in an overheating Imperial Hotel, and a surprise 10.55pm appearance by Bill Clinton at the Boardwalk McDonald’s following his address to delegates earlier that day. The parties were said to be dissatisfied with Blackpool’s conference facilities, preferring instead the metropolitan environments of Manchester and Birmingham, which had spruced up their own conference offerings.

In fact, the importance of conferences themselves had begun to wane. Blair, like Thatcher nearly two decades earlier, had made his first speech as party leader in Blackpool in 1994, hiding his intention to abandon Clause IV with the seemingly anodyne call for an “up-to-date statement of the objects and objectives of our party… open to debate in the coming months”.

The vague words, once deciphered, were to become as politically explosive as any uttered in the Winter Gardens, setting the country on a path where public sector shrinkage became the orthodoxy and one that was to bring Labour electoral success – although recent polling suggests the public are in favour of nationalisation of utilities.

But following 1994, party conferences became more presentational and less concerned with policy, and the growth of the internet and new forms of media gave politicians more ways to connect with the public. As composite motions gave way to verbless sentences, the broadcasters scaled back their interest too.

Following its acquisition by Blackpool Council and refurbishment, including a new £30 million conference and exhibition centre, the Winter Gardens brought the Conservatives back to town last year for their smaller spring conference. There are said to be further conferences in the offing and talks about others. That’ll be worthy of a further speech.

The research for this article was carried out as part of Blackpool Social Club’s Wikimedia residency, during which Kevin Gopal has written about governance and politics and regeneration. Main image: Thatcher at the Conservative Party Conference in Blackpool, October 1985 by Levan Ramishvili.

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