Within hours of returning from the heaven on earth that is Villa Cenami, I was up in Manchester for the annual Labour Party Conference, preceded this year by a knife fight to the death between rival candidates hoping to become the new party leader. With a brief speech by the previous Guvnor, Gordon Brown, it was on with the inordinately drawn-out process of announcing the winner.
While TV shows like “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” and “X Factor” think they’ve cornered the market in faux suspense, the key element that they’ve missed is to draw out that weighted silence before the winner is announced by around fifteen minutes, filling it with fractional voting tallies at different rounds of the elections with third and fourth choices taken into account. Boy, we were on the edge of our seats. As colleague Oli Scarff pointed out, when it came to the final head to head between Ed and David Miliband and Dave’s score of 49.35% was announced, the hall was still quiet in case somehow Ed could have managed to score less than 50.65%. Way to go, brainiacs! Eventually, with both voting results and adrenaline used up, Ed Miliband was declared winner over his brother David by just over 1% of the vote.
Despite Radio 4 reporting that the bookies were edging towards Ed, I was a little surprised to actually see it go his way. I realised in the following days that I was being decidedly hypocritical as, on the one hand, I really dislike slick soundbite “jazz hands” politics but at the same time was chuckling at the fact that Labour had picked someone who is clearly uncomfortable in front of the camera. Bad Leon.
After a quick hug (that I managed to be in the wrong position for), Ed took to the stage for his first speech as leader. With his mentor, former party leader Neil Kinnock looking on, he thanked the other candidates individually with major praise going to his defeated brother. During the announcement and most of Ed’s speech, David smiled, applauded and looked on with encouragement but, in between this, there were moments where he couldn’t quite hide his true feelings.
New day, new leader, new Labour. Sunday kicked off (chortle) with the traditional annual Journalists vs Labour MP football match. Always worth a look, this year’s “Finest Specimen” award went to Ed Balls for his near-perfect impersonation of David Beckham’s Armani adverts.
Back in the hall and it was on with the business at hand. As usual, the area outside the main conference hall was handed over to organisations and groups that support Labour, are campaigning for help from political parties or simply want to get their brand and services noticed. These ranged from a fantastic demonstration by a guide dog charity where delegates could be blindfolded and lead through a course by a guide dog, to pro-Hugo Chavez groups selling t-shirts and mugs. One university was demonstrating it’s use of 3D technology but no matter how long I hung around, I couldn’t catch anyone worthwhile giving it a go. Boo to coawardly senior politicians…
In the afternoon, after a bustle of activity outside the Midland Hotel, David Miliband returned to face the media onslaught. Grinning and bantering with the TV crews, he made a quick statement of support for little Ed and headed into the sanctuary of the hotel.
The next day, we all knew that David would be addressing the conference and, up to now, had made no comment whatsoever on what his plans were now that the race was over. With this kind of job, I always fall into the trap of over-thinking the options and possibilities. Everyone knew that the only picture that would be used the next day was from this speech but without knowing how everything would happen, nobody knew what the “moment” would be. Spending too much time trying to pre-empt these jobs can drive you insane so after driving myself insane, I opted to just sit directly in front of the podium.
After a session of speeches and debates on foreign policy, David took to the stage and immediately had the audience in his hand. A very natural speaker, he wandered the stage without an autocue or notes, delivering both a passionate speech and a strong show of support for his younger brother. During his speech, it was hard not to look at Ed and see a look of fear in his eyes as he saw how comfortably David handled the delegates. Knowing that his keynote address was set for the next day, I really wouldn’t have wanted to follow that.
As had happened for the leadership announcement, I managed to retain my 100% record of being in the wrong place due to being blocked by the huge podium that I’d oh-so-cleverly dumped myself in front of. Genius. After missing the initial hug, thankfully, I managed to scramble to a slightly better angle and get a moment as they came together during the standing ovation.
With the applause still echoing in the hall, the pressure for Ed to perform the next day was mounting.
The following morning saw rule #12 spring back into life for it’s annual moment in the spotlight.
In the conference hall, votes, meetings and Q&A sessions rumbled along with the afternoon’s keynote hanging over everything. It’s always a shame when there’s such a big event on a day as it just kills everything else. The features and fluff that you find are very unlikely to make the papers when, in a few hours time, the wires will be crammed to capacity with pictures of the main players.
With colleague Andy Yates on long lens duty from the back of the hall, I opted to go for the scrum on the floor so stripped my gear down to the basics and stretched off ahead of a long session of crawling about on my knees. The aches and pains of squatting down so low on hard floors while trying to crawl over each other to change positions are not particularly nice and, every single year, I vow to get in shape so I can just sit cross-legged in a Zen-like state rather than cramping and slapping my numb legs every few minutes.
The keynote is another example of an opportunity to over-think a situation as no matter how much thought you put into your position, the speech goes on for forty minutes so you’ll inevitably move all over the area to get different angles. Once you have a good white balance, there’s very little that changes over the week so it’s up to you to make the picture through different angles and lenses.
As ever when shooting a performance of any kind, it’s very easy to switch off your ears and just look at the pictures and I must admit that is what I did here. It was only afterwards that I was told of his controversial criticism of Iraq and only in the evening when I saw the footage of David Miliband’s furious response to his brother’s comments. Speaking to the cameraman that spotted David’s heated comments to Harriet Harman, he said that he noticed it at the time and lip-read him asking Harriet why she was clapping but kept it under his hat until after Sky and the BBC had done their main evening bulletins. When ITN did their evening news, out came the footage and a whole new story was born. By the end of the evening, David Miliband’s career in frontline politics was all but over. Journalists boldly claimed that we would never see him on the stage again despite him still not having made any statement on his future. That announcement would be coming the next day.
The one bit of planning that was necessary came at the end of Ed’s speech as we’d been pre-warned that he would not be bringing his heavily-pregnant partner, Justine Thornton, onto the stage. This resulted in all of the photographers camping around the poor woman for the last twenty minutes of his speech as we waited to catch the hug. It almost got to the point where no-one was shooting the actual keynote address for fear of missing “the moment”. As is depressingly common in these situations, when the hug came, it was a definite let-down as no-one could get a good angle . Yet another lesson in learning not to expect a “guaranteed” picture to actually work.
Aside from the main events of the day, it’s still worth a regular patrol around the stalls as you never really know what you might stumble across. Limited edition Ed Miliband mugs were hurriedly produced with a queue forming to buy them as I took pictures. They didn’t quite have the flair of David Cameron’s “Fire up the Quattro” mugs but that didn’t seem to be slowing sales. It really does seem as though the Conservatives have the upper hand in eye-catching souvenirs. The latest one that I’ve seen from the Conservative conference is bottled “David’s bitter” ale featuring a sketch of David Miliband on the label.
After days of speculation, Wednesday brought the deadline that everyone had been waiting for; Shadow Cabinet nominations and, with it, a definitive announcement from David Miliband on what he planned to do. With a final registration point of 5pm, the media in London gathered around his family home for any sign of a statement. In Manchester, all eyes were on Ed.
This year’s special guest speaker was Helle Thorning-Schmidt, a Social Democrat from Denmark who was the focus of attention until halfway through her speech when Ed arrived onstage. Cue a mass scramble to the area in front of him to shoot every single twitch, sniff or glance that could be the tell-tale sign of upset (or at least look like that). It’s amazing how someone scratching the tip of a nose can end up in the following day’s papers with a caption talking of the subject “wiping tear’s from their eyes”.
It was around this time that I really began to feel sorry for the guy. Having won the leadership of the Labour Party, he was now under intense media scrutiny for the first time in his life, had potentially ended his brother’s frontline political career, caused a division within his family and was clearly suffering from a rather heavy cold. It got to the point during the afternoon session that he truly looked on the verge of vomiting as he tried to find something to do with his hands. Not the best way to “celebrate” your victory really.
As expected, at a few minutes after 5pm, David announced his retirement from frontline politics and a hastily organised “doorstep” was set up outside the Midland Hotel. After an hour-long wait, Ed walked down the long corridor to the front door alone with the applause of his team coming from the rooms behind him. With a fine example of upper-lip stiffness, he delivered his words of support for David’s decision and headed back in, leaving the TV reporters to spring into the gap to continue their live reports.
With the Party hoping that the whole Miliband soap opera was behind them, the Conference reached it’s final day. By now, Ed’s cold was in full effect giving all of the photographers the chance to fire off copious quantites of frames whenever he blew his nose. This is serious photojournalism in full effect, people. “Can’t you see? He’s crying, dammit!”
The morning was filled with various speeches and Q&A sessions in front of a decidedly thinned-out audience.
As tradition dictates it was down to the Deputy Leader to officially close the conference for another year with a light-hearted rallying cry to supporters to get out there and do lots of good Laboury things. With a number of regular Cabinet members deciding to step down this year, it was the last time that we’d see Alistair Darling, Jack Straw and Bob Ainsworth on the stage but attention was already shifting to the Shadow Cabinet election results, to be announced on the 7th of October.