Opinion: Labour fails to impress in Manchester

Labour's Manchester spring conference was supposed to be the launch of Labour's election campaign for the June euro and local government poll.

Labour's Manchester spring conference was supposed to be the launch of Labour's election campaign for the June euro and local government poll.

Inevitably events in Madrid overshadowed the conference and it wasn't only Tony Blair who had to rip up his planned speech. Gordon Brown was forced to refer to the Spanish bomb blasts when all he really wanted was to talk up his Budget.

But even though Madrid was leading the news the PM did not once refer to the war with Iraq. He must have been delighted to hear Amicus union chief Derek Simpson agree with him that Iraq is now in the past and there was no chance of 'regime change' in the Labour Party. Thanks to the Tories who backed the war, Blair at least won't face the same fate as the Spanish government.

Following the Tories successful Harrogate conference, Labour was determined to fight back. Many of the MPs I spoke to were actually relieved to be able to focus on attacking the newly revived Tories. But Labour failed to make the most of the conference and many actually stayed away. The spring event is a free media hit for the political parties yet it didn't seem bothered about exploiting that.

The many journalists in Manchester had nothing but complaints about the whole Labour media operation. I'm told that telephone calls and pager messages are simply ignored by the press office and if you want to interview a minister it's best to go direct to them. It is the number one rule that all calls should be answered no matter how much you may hate the journalist, and if you don't control who goes on what programme then how on earth can you control the message?

In Harrogate the Tories treated the media like royalty - in Manchester we got the distinct impression that Labour would rather we weren't there at all. The BBC was banished to a few Portakabins in a car park even though the conference venue PR people told me there was ample space in the main hall. The BBC got its own back by refusing to serve champagne to MPs at its party. When I jokingly complained that the Tories had had champagne, I was curtly informed by BBC corporate affairs that it was just sparkling wine.

Unbelievably for a New Labour media operation that prides itself on professionalism in everything it does, it even managed to screw up the colour of the backdrop.

The bright red may have impressed the delegates but was a disaster for the TV cameras.

If Alastair Campbell's legacy to the Party is that all hacks are bastards and should be treated appropriately then he has done Labour a big disservice.

I never dreamed that I would see the day when I preferred attending a Conservative bash to a Labour one but I confess I do.

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