How Manchester became the conference capital of the north

Anthony Bryant
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Oh they did like to be beside the seaside. Blackpool to be precise. But not any more. The main political party conferences are just as at home in big cities as on the prom prom prom – if not more so.

That’s why, this weekend, around 5,000 Conservative constituency representatives, and a similar number of reporters, columnists, pundits, photographers, cameramen and sound engineers, technical staff and armies of clipboard toting gofers from the print, broadcast and online media in the UK and overseas, are pouring into Manchester for the Tory party conference.

On top of that there are also hundreds of exhibitors and observers, Cabinet ministers and their serried ranks of their civil servants, special advisers and public relations johnnies practised in the dark arts of explaining the difference between what the platform speakers say and what they actually mean.

Tight security around the Manchester Central convention centre will cause disruption. So will the arrival of an estimated 50,000 marchers, variously protesting about austerity, Brexit and, no doubt, cruelty to badgers and foxes.

But, as the saying goes, we’re worth it – because the local economy is set to get a £30 million-plus boost.

I followed the conference season circus for 25 years, from Blackpool to Brighton to Bournemouth and the occasional excursion to Perth (Social Democrats – remember them?) and Harrogate (the Liberals).

I discovered that the real stories came not from the stage-managed speeches in the main hall, but from the gossip and back-stabbing in the bars in and around the conference centre and during late-night sessions in the headquarter hotels.

This year should provide a rich vein of nuggets. You might say a mother lode.

But now only the ghosts of the once mighty prop up the bar at Blackpool’s Imperial Hotel. Conference managers ditched the resort in favour of Manchester, Birmingham and, for the first time last year, Liverpool.

Something to do with politicians liking to think they are getting closer to the people. Which, of course, they don’t.

With its new facilities which can now accommodate up to 10,000 delegates in and around the former Central Station, Manchester staged its first major political conference in 2006. Labour came to town – the party ditched Blackpool after 2002 – and Tony Blair made his last speech to conference as prime minister before being elbowed out of Number 10 by Gordon Brown.

Since then, the Manchester Central complex has hosted one of the big two party conferences every year apart from 2016, when the Conservatives were in Birmingham and Labour went to Liverpool.

The Conservatives staged their last conference in Blackpool – the last by any of the major parties in the resort – in 2007. They first came to Manchester in 2009 and have alternated between Manchester and Birmingham ever since, while Labour still use Brighton every other year.

The tradition of staging big conferences at the seaside in the autumn was based on the availability of plentiful accommodation – in the case of Blackpool, a lot of it not very good.

Meanwhile the remarkable increase of hotel accommodation in Manchester – the second most visited city in England – made hosting such big events, stretching over three of four days, entirely feasible.

Moreover, political conferences have been very heavily guarded since the Provisional IRA’s attempt to assassinate Margaret Thatcher and her Cabinet by bombing Brighton’s Grand Hotel in 1984.

In Blackpool there had to be two security ‘rings of steel’- one around the Winter Gardens, the other round the HQ hotel about a mile away.

The close proximity of the Manchester Central complex to both the Midland Hotel and the Radisson on Peter Street, used as HQ hotels by party grandees, enables the whole area to be contained within a single security cordon.

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