For me, the start of Labour Party Conference is always signalled by Progress'
popular annual Sunday night Rally. This year, expectant camera crews and delegates waited to hear Peter Mandelson give his blessing to Gordon Brown's premiership as revealed in the Observer that morning. Nervous laughs greeted Mandelson's concession that he'd indulged in a bit of flirting in his life, though thankfully not with David Cameron as the Observer had suggested.
Tension mounted as he further admitted that his dalliance with the Young Communists was more for "social" rather than "political" reasons. Ooh er.
So we were all much happier when he settled on his central message that Gordon Brown should be congratulated for leading a dignified and stable transition,and that New Labour was alive and well in his hands. He did give a mild warning that there needed to be greater articulation of how the Government intended to tackle difficult issues such as public service reform and crime and security. But apart from that there were smiles all round, and even a bit of advice for Ed Ball's first Progress Rally speech: "Don't go on for too long". Never harmed Mandy though.
After the Rally we cantered to the first receptions of conference, and first up was the Young Fabian's bash, which a couple of years ago used to have Mandelson in the line-up, but who have since become rather more serious and used the occasion to big-up their latest pamphlet on fighting the BNP. Good on them. Then it was back into the whirling rain to get across the other side of the conference centre to the New Statesman reception which did have plenty of champagne but had the downside of being incredibly sweaty. Thinking we'd escape the heat we trudged back to the Highcliff which is this year's conference hotel, only to find it rammed with, by this time of the evening, pretty worse-for-wear delegates. The news earlier in the day of Gordon's crack-down on teen binge-drinking looked rather misdirected.
Everything seems to have happened much more quickly this year because the leader's speech moved to Monday. So quickly in fact that we forgot to find tickets for the main hall, and had to settle to watch it in the 'Hot Rocks Cafe' complete with neon signs and surf boards. It was a slightly surreal viewing experience with the seriousness of Brown's message surrounded by bright plastic garlands on the walls, Hawaiian shirts and messages of Aloha!
In the background you could hear the organ-grinder music of the carousel spinning outside, which got on the nerves after a while. It was not hard, however, to be moved by Gordon Brown's very personal call to the nation to trust his judgement and his claim to be a conviction politician. His cry that 'no injustice can last forever' and the image of a 'golden thread of common humanity' which connects us across national boundaries, let us see Brown in his moral element.
The question on most conference attendee's minds this week was: when is the election going to be called? It's pretty pointless to speculate but still quite interesting to see what people think. Andy Burnham at the Progress fringe on Monday said quite adamantly that he'd prefer an election in 2008, citing the boost of the Comprehensive Spending Review and the 60th Anniversary of the NHS, while Stephen Twigg, Progress Chair and newly selected candidate for Liverpool West Derby, said that we'd be better organised if we left it, but then so would the Tories. We're equally keen for Stephen to be back in Parliament as soon as possible, but we're also rather anxious that the Progress Annual Conference which is already packed with oodles of top speakers is booked for November 3rd...
The main feeling from this conference is one of unity and a shared endeavour to win a fourth term. Compared to last year it's like the fog has lifted and given everyone renewed vigour to take on the Tories. But as Andy Burnham warned in the Progress debate on David Cameron, the Party mustn't fall into the trap of becoming "arrogant, complacent or over-confident" otherwise our enthusiasm will be very short-lived indeed.