John Harris

Journalist & Author

What conference film-making taught me about the new political landscape | John Harris

John Harris looks back on his tour of the three conferences

This year’s political party conference season was hyped up as one of the most interesting in years – and it really was. The Tories were meeting as the party of government for the first time since 1996; the Lib Dems have a share of power for the first time in an age. Labour, meanwhile, had to elect a leader and decide its post-Blair and Brown direction. During the three conferences, I made nine films – an attempt to capture not only the big debates around the standard issues, but also to delve into what was really eating away at both activists and members of the public, well away from the main conference halls and set speeches.

Here are nine things I learned:

1) The Lib Dems have made some people very, very angry.

For years ignored or patronised, the Lib Dems were this year subject to protests from a coalition of trade unionists, political activists, students and others opposed to their coalition with the Tories and the planned public spending cuts.

2) A few Lib Dems are also pretty irate.

The subject of free schools and academies brought out a polite but determined rebellion from a sizeable number in Clegg’s party.

3) A combination of all this has had political consequences on the ground already.

I visited the bellwether Liverpudlian ward of Picton to speak to the people there about their views of the Lib Dems six months into the coalition, as well as Ian Jobling, a councillor elected as a Lib Dem who has since defected to Labour.

4) Ed Miliband has a fight on his hands.

Red Ed? Lurch to the left? The Labour conference got pretty surreal after the younger brother got the job of steering the party’s future.

5) There are women in the Labour party, too.

In an attempt to get beyond the brothers, I spoke to Labour women about the ongoing fight for women’s representation, gender equality, and why all this is a weak point for the coalition.

6) Ed Miliband gets it.

In an attempt to get to grips with “middle England”, I visited the affluent suburb of Altrincham to speak to people struggling to earn a living, but also desperate to live a life beyond the bottom line, and I put their views to the new Labour leader, who had some very interesting things to say.

7) The “big society” still doesn’t make much sense to a lot of the Tory party (or anyone else).

In asking Conservative conference delegates and politicians whether the cuts where out of ideology or necessity, I kept on being returned to Cameron’s big idea – but even its evangelists admit it is very much in its infancy.

8) The Tories are still claiming to be the greenest party ever.

But, as proved by the telling omission of climate change from Cameron’s speech, the evidence for this was very thin on the ground in Birmingham.

9) We really are not all in this together.

I visited two starkly different areas of Birmingham – Edgbaston and Newtown – to talk to people about the government’s proposed welfare reforms, only to collide with some uncomfortable truths about the state of Britain and our lack of solidarity.


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