There are many upsides to my job as a political consultant in the private sector, but attending Labour Party conferences isn’t one of them. But despite my political differences with the other side, the banter is usually friendly and often amusing.
Something had changed this year. During my three days in Brighton this week I realised the full extent of the fear amongst Labour politicians and delegates about the outcome of the looming general election.
We have all seen the evidence for ourselves this week: Brown glaring at Adam Boulton before tearing off his microphone during a televised interview; the trade union leader ripping up a copy of the Sun newspaper on the conference platform; Peter Mandelson trying to belittle George Osborne in his key note speech on the basis that he happens to look young. I could go on.
But I also encountered it myself in many heated discussions with senior policy wonks and MPs. In particular, I was genuinely startled by the importance they all appear to place on Cameron and Osborne being former members of the Bullingdon Club.
Some of the people I spoke to about this in Brighton ended the conversations literally red in the face, seething with rage at the prospect of the next Prime Minister being a former member of a university club which, in their words, “hated poor people”. They genuinely believed that linking the Bulllingdon with Cameron alone would be enough to prevent swing voters choosing the Conservatives, and to motivate the Labour core.
When I raised the clear evidence that the "Tory toffs" attack in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election had failed, even this was disputed by one Labour candidate. He retorted: “it didn’t work in Nantwich, but it did in Crewe”.
If I were a Labour strategist, I might be tempted to target the largely untried and inexperienced composition of the shadow cabinet. But to rely on creating public disquiet over the antics of the Tory leadership when teenagers seems a desperate act from a party which has lost its appeal and the sure touch it had under Tony Blair.
My final evening in Brighton was spent at the gala dinner, with the entertainment provided by Labour luvvies such as comedian Jo Brand and singer Lesley Garrett. Whilst some of Brand’s material was pretty good, she ended her stint on stage with juvenile and cringeworthy attacks on anyone in the audience who “looked like” Tories, taunting them as “prats”, “twits” or “Tim Nice-But-Dims”.
As a comprehensive school educated, lifelong Tory (and sadly without a trust fund to inherit), I did smirk at the idea that the many millions of people who vote Conservatives all look the same, or enjoy staggering wealth.
It’s an old cliché but it is true in politics that when you get angry and personal, you’ve already lost the argument. This is why the Conservative leadership is playing such a canny game these days.
By being reasonable, moderate in tone and attacking Labour and Liberal Democrats on the basis of policies rather than personalities, the party will continue to attract voters not used to voting blue.