Feature: The mood in Manchester

Labour supporters outside the G-Mex conference centre in Manchester are uniting behind Gordon Brown – but are prepared to admit their leader faces problems.

The general mood, incredibly enough, is one of optimism. Or perhaps relief is a better word: relief that the long summer of simmering plots and unbridled resentment has passed as the political season gets underway again.

Some had more realistic views than others. Nilgun Canver, a councillor and European candidate for London, said Labour’s poor polling numbers were “totally speculated through the media” and were “temporary”.

“I am confident that the whole party after the conference will put through and it will ensure the polls give better results to us,” she said.

“I believe strongly that. all party members need to unite and focus on the challenge ahead. The challenge is the economic crisis that is bothering the whole world, not only Britain. In that sense I am confident we will pull through.

“As he said yesterday, [Gordon Brown] is determined as within the leadership to do whatever it takes to take the nation through these hard times and I believe that he will do that.”

Ms Canver remained upbeat: “There are some temporary dents maybe, but it is accepted in a way that after three terms it is not always easy and this is the crisis are not expected before. So I strongly believe this is a temporary glitch, if you like.”

There is a tension here. Some want to blame the economy for the government’s unpopularity. Others prefer to simply point to the three-term problem. Tony McCarthy, of Portsmouth North, thought long and hard before giving his view on why Labour is doing so badly.

“I think the state of the economy, the global financial crisis and the government getting blamed by many voters for everything – ie food prices, fuel prices,” he said.

Mr McCarthy thinks the crisis could play into Gordon Brown’s strengths, rather than hindering him. “I think prospects will improve – I think we’ve got more chance with a stable economy and people seeing Gordon at his best – managing the economy well to actually win the next general election.”

Does he have any views about a certain Charles Clarke? The former home secretary openly called for a leadership election for the first time yesterday but his manoeuvrings have not attracted any kind of significant support.

“I really have got absolutely no time for Charles Clarke or anything he says.
I think it’s disgraceful,” Mr McCarthy said dismissively.

“I think for somebody in his position, who was a great home secretary, should be a bit more responsible. This would be really the wrong time for discussions about leadership. We need the leader to focus on seeing us through the economic crisis.”

Patrick Joyce of Rugby agreed, describing Mr Clarke as “dead wood hanging around” and adding that “nobody takes what he says very seriously.”

The main problem from his point of view is presentation. He believes anyone who doesn’t think Mr Brown has the best political brain on the country is “living on another planet” and that, while the prime minister faces his biggest challenges now, he will pull through.

“We have good policies. We have good people to deliver them and we should be presenting them better. It’s about presentation. It’s not about policy and it’s not about personality. It’s about how we deliver.”

Norma Stephenson, a member of the national executive committee which rejected calls from 12 MPs to issue leadership papers in the run-up to Manchester, makes her position very clear.

“As a member of the NEC we were requested for them and it was unanimous not to issue them because we’ve never issued them in government,” she said.

“We’ve never issued them in the last 11 years. To be frank, these people do not need us to issue us with a ballot form to start a leadership competition. They can do it within their own PLP.”

What caused the problems, though? Why was she being pestered?

“I think mainly it’s attributed to the backstabbing and infighting that’s coming from people who should know better and who should be more committed to this party,” she added scathingly.

“Politics are more important than personalities and they should concentrate on doing the job they’re elected to do rather than the job.”

As is inevitable when you’re outside the conference hall of the governing party, an MP crops up. This one is Bill Olner from Nuneaton, who declines to comment on the polls but says all he knows is “there’s a very good mood at conference”.

“The prime minister has done a wonderful job in seeing us through what’s been a very, very serious global problem,” he said.

Mr Olner, surely the target audience for Mr Clarke’s overtures, is not receptive. “I think Charles is wrong,” he adds, before letting slip his guard just a little. I ask him what issues Labour needs to concentrate on to move forward.

He answers: “We’ll wait to see what Gordon has to say as the leader of this party on Tuesday. I have to say there are some ways we need to move forward. We need to bring a lot more social justice into things. I think there’s a need now to redefine and spell out what the Labour party stand for and particularly what Gordon Brown stands for in leading that party.”

And then we have Edna Forrest of Bishop’s Stortford, who uses the wisdom of her years to provide a thought-provoking last word. Her attitude to why Labour is struggling in the polls takes on the broadest perspective. She believes the youngsters have forgotten what the Tories are actually like.

“Some of the young couples now can’t remember or didn’t know what it was like under the last Conservative governments. They’ve had it very good in the last ten years and suddenly they can’t understand why we are having a few problems,” she says.

“If they could cast their mind back to when they were little and there weren’t two cars in the family and they didn’t go abroad for their holidays, then if they want to go back to those days then the man to go to is David Cameron. I certainly won’t be.”