It takes more than three hours to get to Blackpool from Westminster. If you are lucky, you might get one the four direct trains a day from Euston. Otherwise, you change at Preston, 25 minutes away. If you are really unlucky, you might change at Manchester Piccadilly, an hour and 21 minutes away. A train from the same station to Milton Keynes, three times the distance, takes just ten minutes longer.
Blackpool is far from London, or at least the London most of our politicians inhabit. Both senses of that sentence are equally true. Life expectancy is falling. Its rate of homelessness is three times the national average. Its rate of unemployment also beats it. It has the highest number of drug deaths of any English town. More people are too sick to work than anywhere else in the United Kingdom. The number of disadvantaged pupils in its schools is well above the national average too. In June 2016, 67.5 per cent of its residents voted for Brexit.
It is a place that has politics done to it, rather than for it. How many ministers, MPs, special advisers, lobbyists and indeed journalists can say they are familiar with the lived experiences of people in places like Blackpool? Last November, Sarah O’Connor of the Financial Times won deserved acclaim for a humane and arresting piece that examined its unhappy place in our country and economy in forensic detail. If you haven’t read it, you should. The picture she painted was of lives scarcely recognisable to many people in Westminster. You might say that is precisely why it was so widely read.
Slowly, national politics is catching up. Labour spent its party conference pitching to exactly this sort of provincial town. Jeremy Corbyn is now describing them as “held back” by successive governments, both red and blue, and their refusal to challenge neoliberal economics. Just as the leader of the opposition believes places like this will form his path to power, Theresa May, more cynically, believes they are the Conservatives’ lifebelt.
So why is it that neither of them visits? Politics was once done in Blackpool, rather than to it. Party conferences are as much a part of its identity as rock or fish and chips. Kiss me quick, squeeze me slow, debate the motion on nationalisation even slower. But neither major party has held their party conference there in over a decade. The smaller parties now give Blackpool a wide berth too. The last to hold its conference there was the Monster Raving Loonies.
The Tories last visited in 2007. Incongruously, it was in Blackpool that David Cameron – that uber-trendy denizen of Notting Hill – became leader, two years earlier. Labour’s last time was in 2002, when Bill Clinton addressed conference and then went for a burger with Kevin Spacey. “I want you to know I am honoured to be here,” he said. “I did very much enjoy the opportunity of touring around the city last night; I did like the McDonald’s, I did like the people that came up and said hello.”
How hard it is to imagine Clinton, or even Alun Cairns or Richard Burgon, addressing Blackpool now. Can you imagine Boris Johnson voluntarily spending four days in Blackpool? Labour were in Liverpool this year, Brighton before that, before that Liverpool and Brighton again. Both are safe electoral turf. The Tories now similarly alternate between Birmingham and Manchester.
The conference venues of today are all cities with their own problems, though most people at conference are unlikely to see many of them. Jeremy Corbyn did so this year, but most visitors to Labour conference don’t leave the Albert Dock to visit Walton on the Saturday afternoon. Conferences have a fundamentally placeless quality. The experience is unchallenging and hermetic. They are by and large hosted in affluent places and the action takes place in salubrious settings that urban professionals would feel comfortable in: posh hotels behind a ring of steel, nice restaurants, lots of other London professionals.
Blackpool only wants for one of those things. It has five star hotels in increasing numbers and its Winter Gardens, site of so many conferences past, is undergoing a £25m renovation. It now has the attention of the political class, articulated with varying degrees of sincerity. But what it doesn’t have is the place in the political conversation it deserves, despite that conversation increasingly concerning itself with its future. It is a shame, and one that costs the town between £15 million and £20m a year.
You might complain about the infrastructure and its distance from London. But if Corbyn and May are really serious about winning towns, about burning injustices, and about the people who voted for Brexit, they should experience it for themselves and book their 2020 conferences in Blackpool.