Policing Party Conferences

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One final thing I have to say about the party conferences this year, and this is not a partisan point, is the state of policing at the various party conferences this year.

At the Lib Dem conference, as usual, the police were almost non-existent. No great surprise there as the party is simply not a target. Indeed, even the Brighton & Hove Albion FC fans didn’t bother to show up this year and shout rude things about David Bellotti.

In Bournemouth, the police surrounding Labour conference was a severe case of overkill but, as a leafletter, I have few complaints. Yes, they mucked us about a little on the Sunday morning as they dithered over where to allow people to hand out flyers, but all of that was sorted over about 30 minutes. They were friendly and courteous throughout.

Blackpool was a different story however. To start with, they kept away anyone without a conference pass so they couldn’t even flyer. This included the ubiquitous anti-cigarette man who for much of the week was forced to shout at the other side of the street. They kept hassling people for the so-called crime of leaving their bags to one side as they handed out flyers. This was justified on the basis that people could hide dangerous devices amongst it while the owners weren’t looking. But any terrorist worth his or her salt would simply take advantage of the dozens of traffic cones that the police themselves had insisted on scattering everywhere.

The worst day was Tuesday. Overnight, and for no apparent reason, they massively stepped up security around the Winter Gardens. Suddenly, you weren’t allowed within 100 metres of the entrance without a pass. There were mounted police everywhere, despite the fact that there were no demonstrators, no crowds and no expectation of them. People with press passes were suddenly told they were not allowed to use the main entrance and had to round the back.

Myself and a colleague turned up with a big heavy box of materials to hand out only to be told we would have to either carry the box or have it confiscated. In the end, we ended up with a pantomimic routine of holding the materials every time a police officer walked by.

What was worse was that it was clear they were just having a laugh. An officer would come up to me and give me a hard time, walk up the road, have a giggle, and his colleague would come down and do the same again. A lot of the time they couldn’t even keep a straight face. I’m not claiming to be the victim of some major miscarriage of justice, but police harassment is an ugly thing no matter how petty and it was unacceptable.

The last time the Lib Dems were in Blackpool, it was a similar story. They insisted on a number of extravagant security measures which they then told the Home Office were not strictly speaking necessary, therefore leading to the party itself to carry the costs. And then the enforcement was shoddy, to say the least. At the Imperial Hotel, they operated an extremely tight operation at the entrance, but the officers themselves would then leave the fire exits open and unguarded, allowing people to sneak in round the back. It was utterly hopeless.

This was possibly the last time there will ever be a main party conference in Blackpool, at least until they sort out their basic infrastructure (lack of direct trains, the distance between the Winter Gardens and the main hotels, etc). But in case there is one (and unforeseen consequences have a way of forcing parties back – in the case of the Lib Dems in 2005 it was the practicalities of holding a conference at Gateshead just before the Great North Run), they need to get their act together.

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