50 years on: This year’s party conferences won’t match the drama of 1963

By Des Brown

The media coverage might have been very different, but that didn't stop the conference season of 50 years ago being packed with drama.

This year is a big anniversary of the Labour and Conservative autumn conferences of 1963 – one of the most significant conference season of modern times and one which reflects the degree politics and the media have changed enormously across the half-century.

This was the era before the broadcasting of parliament – which didn't begin on radio until 1978 and cameras weren't admitted into the Commons until 1989 – so these conference exaltations to the party faithful did hold a sense of importance and occasion as it was one of the few places you could see a leader make a live political speech. The prime minister of the day, Harold Macmillan – the very epitome of a grouse-moor politician – was rarely seen, other than in a few TV broadcasts or occasional hustings appearances.

On October 1st 1963 Harold Wilson delivered his inaugural speech to the Scarborough conference as Labour leader. He was very much the unexpected leader, having succeeded the late Hugh Gaitskill at the start of the year.  Labour had been out of power since 1951 and politics existed in what was, effectively, a two-party system.

The conference was historic for Wilson's "the Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of the technological revolution…." speech. Yet, the full-page report in the following day's Times – headlined 'Mr Wilson's four policies for harnessing science' – didn't mention that phrase (in much the same way as a few weeks earlier, when reporting on Dr Martin Luther King's speech in Washington DC, it made no mention of the 'I have a dream' section).

The conference speech emphasising technology created an image of Wilson as a man impressive in his grasp of new possibilities, whilst the Conservatives, congregating the following week in Blackpool, seemed top heavy with peers and privilege. In the outside world, the Profumo affair had ended messily with the suicide of Stephen Ward. The great train robbers were still on the run.

Yet the most important figure of the Tory conference would not be there. Tradition dictated that the Conservative leader would only grace the conference with his presence for the final address. On the eve of the October gathering, it was announced that the deputy prime minister, Rab Butler, would be delivering the final speech as Macmillan had been admitted to hospital in London and would be inactive for several months. Then, on the first afternoon of the conference – Thursday October 10th – at a little after 5pm, Lord Home took to the Blackpool stage and read a letter from the PM announcing his resignation on health grounds.

Macmillan believed himself to be terminally ill (he ended up living until 1986). A few hours later, Lord Hailsham declared he'd be renouncing his peerage and go back to being Quentin Hogg – or 'throwing his hat in to the ring', as the phrase went.   Butler followed suit. In the end, neither was successful.  In the strange old days of the 'magic circle' of Tory grandees selecting a leader, for no apparent reason, Lord Home was chosen. Yet his tenure at Downing Street was a brief one. By the autumn of the following year, it was Wilson who was laughing all the way to No 10.

So the 1963 conference season was all about the ending of the old guard of grandees and privilege and the arrival of the political equivalent of the swinging 60s. Yet the media environment in which occurred was astonishing limited compared the ones which will cover the gatherings in Brighton and Manchester this year. In 1963, coverage was a few live hours during the day on the two channels of BBC and ITV (the only channels) and two evening news bulletins. The following day every working man would read about it in their copy of The Daily Mirror or Daily Express and every white collar professional in their copies of The Times, Telegraph or Guardian.

Nowadays these political festivals exist in a saturated and energized world of BBC Parliament covering the Commons and Lords all day, rolling 24-news and online news.  Everyone, from the prime minister downwards, tweets. This is the age when British PMs must be part of the popular culture – joking on Late Night with Letterman and sharing the sofa on This Morning, both things Cameron has done in the past 12 months.

If the conference seems more of interest to journalists and the media than the population at large, then the lack of public interest is nothing to do with the decline of party membership or apathy with politics. It is to do with the aforementioned exposure politicians enjoy nowadays which was beyond the wildest of imaginations in 1963. When Miliband and Cameron deliver their conference address, the public will be connected with it via new media more than ever before. They'll be covered on Sky, the BBC News Channel and BBC Radio 5 Live. The Guardian and Telegraph will have live blogs on which readers can give instant reactions. Other reactions will be tweeted by supporters who are gushing and opponents who are scathing. They will be followed on iPads and iPhones and caught up with on the iPlayer.

Party conferences are still important. The prime minister's address to his party conference is a significant event because it's the nearest thing we have in Britain to a state of the union address. Last year about Cameron and Miliband delivered excellent speeches with brio, and, no doubt, they will rise to the occasion again in the next few weeks. They'll know in 20 months time there is an election they can win – and that there's virtue in looking on the future's bright side.

However, it is unlikely that Cameron will announce his resignation on the first day of conference. Or that Miliband's speech will galvanize the audience with its vision of a technological Britain and go down in the political history books, as Wilson's did half a century ago.

Des Brown is a blogger behind Be Not Afeard the Isle is Full of Noises, about the cultural, social and political life of Great Britain.  He also writes for the Newcastle Free Press and The Moscow Times.

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