Tears expected as Blair’s last party conference begins

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Don’t have time to sit at home and watch the party conferences live? Tony Grew gives us a quick guide to the week ahead at the Labour party conference in Manchester, with some tips on the key speeches and some analysis of the New Labour way of holding a conference.

The Labour conference was kicked off yesterday by rival TV interviews from Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

Gordon came over all statesmanlike and talked about his desire to devolve power from Whitehall. Nice steal of a LibDem theme. He also said that Blair was a great PM and that he should stay as long as he likes.

Meanwhile Tony Blair was left with the now traditional ‘call for unity’, repeating his new mantra that the public are not interested in who succeeds him.

He refused to back any of the candidates for his job, though many fear he might be ready to back a stop-Gordon candidate in private when the time comes.

The actual conference started yesterday afternoon with a speech by party chairman Hazel Blears and reports from Scotland and Wales. Lovely.

The fireworks should start today. Gordon Brown is due to give a speech to conference at around noon.

As this will be his last speech as chancellor, we can expect to see a robust defence of his economic management alongside a naked bid for the leadership. Knowing Gordon there will probably be quite a lot of socialist-lite language. He is normally well received at conference, his old Labour style always appeals to delegates, and this could well be the launch pad for the his bid for the premiership.

Later today John Hutton will bore delegates into submission over something, just to ensure the conference is too tired to notice a report on party funding. No one mention the bungs.

Tuesday morning could see some impassioned debate over “Britain and the World” where Margaret Beckett and Des Browne will be held to account over Iraq and Afghanistan in their roles as Foreign and Defence Secretaries.

Then there is what TV producers call a bit of Polly, as in pollyfilla. We have Hilary Armstrong talking to conference about social exclusion (she is against it), followed by Ruth Kelly and Baroness Amos having a nice chat about the future for Britain’s communities (very rosy under this government). Ruth’s Local Government and Communities government is responsible for the gays, but it is unlikely she will mention LGBT issues in her speech.

You will have noticed by now the main difference with the LibDem conference. Instead of policy documents that will form the manifesto being put to conference, debated and then voted on, we have policy ‘themes’ generated by the leadership and then presented to delegates by cabinet ministers.

There will be no actual debate, and any impassioned voices will be truncated or intimidated. A sad reflection of what used to be the greatest party of public speakers.

I admit being old enough to remember unreconstructed trade unionists giving barnstorming speeches to conference on matters of national importance. The last time we saw such a speech was when John Prescott urged the 1993 conference to back one member one vote. Ever since then it has been one member no voice.

All this leads us neatly to the highlight of Tuesday’s conference – the Prime Minister.

An hour and a half is set aside for this address, which we now know for certain will be the last time Tony Blair will speak to conference as party leader. We can expect to see an almost mirror image of Gordon Brown’s address. A robust defence of his leadership. A call for the party to carry on his reforms into the next decade.

There will probably also be some emotion. Blair is very good at emotion. If I were a betting gay, I would put money on there being tears.

For all the sound and fury of the past few months, Tony Blair has delivered his party three election victories and massive majorities. Britain is genuinely a fairer and more just country under his leadership. There will be a huge standing ovation and it will be a moment in the history of this government that will be remembered – so please watch.

Fitting in with Blair’s last conference, a fringe meeting is being held by gay charity Stonewall and the Labour Campaign for Lesbian and Gay Rights (LCLGR) to assess just how much the party has removed discriminatory legislation against the LGBT community in his time.

The event will be addressed by Stonewall chief executive Ben Summerskill, Minister for Equalities Meg Munn and LCLGR Chair Katie Hanson.

And so to Wednesday, where yet again there is little to excite the delegates. A QA about world poverty. That nice David Miliband, leader-in-waiting and the anointed one, will appear before a live conference audience so he can be assessed. He will be followed by his closest rival for leader after next, Douglas Alexander, Gordon Brown with added personality, but fatally Scottish. They will be talking about sustainable communities (they believe in them).

Improving health and education is the afternoon session. See how neither of these vital issues gets its own session? Very clever, they keep bunching things together so the ministers can be schematic rather than specific. People tell me socialists are control freaks, and as new Labour goes on I find myself agreeing. Anyway, Hewitt and Alan Johnson will be the show ponies on Wednesday afternoon. It will be interesting to see what reaction Johnson gets from delegates, as he is now a serious contender as the stop-Gordon candidate.

Thursday morning sees another candidate, Peter Hain, present a report on Northern Ireland. Conference seem to like him, and it’s hardly controversial subject matter, so he should get a good reception.

And hopefully it will be a better one than the Daily Telegraph reports he received in Manchester’s gay village. The paper claims Mr Hain visited Canal Street for a LCLGR party, he took to the stage and made a rather un-pc and poorly received joke linking the religious beliefs of Ruth Kelly, whose poor gay voting record was recently exposed by PinkNews.co.uk, and DUP leader Ian Paisley. Too soon Pete, too soon.

Tessa Jowell is followed in quick succession by John Reid, yet another contender for PM.

Finally, conference will be brought to an end by one of the few members of the cabinet definitely not in the running for any new job – John Prescott.

We can expect a very emotional address from the deputy PM, his last to conference. For all his faults, Prescott is an iconic figure in the Labour party, and we can expect to see his ovation outdo even Brown and Blair as he gives a final turn to an adoring audience.