Now the parties have abandoned the old seaside conference venues like Blackpool with their cheap B&Bs, troublesome activists from the provinces find that four days of networking costs the same as a high-end foreign holiday, and conveniently stay away.
By way of reinforcements, a strange breed of pasty-looking young men in dark suits – aspiring political insiders, who actually look borderline unemployable – has affixed itself to all three parties. Some fringe meetings offer a break from the tedium, but even in the case of the admirably democratic Lib Dems, the spectacle in the main hall is often deathly. With the absence of natural light, the whole hurly-burly engenders a feeling of latent unease: after a few days, you feel as if you are going mad.
I watched as Cameron did his best to cut through to the public. He managed to alchemise populist thwack and patriotic optimism out of a desperate set of circumstances. But the vast crack in his rhetoric was self-evident: in effect, he was approximating the nothing-to-fear approach of Roosevelt, while extolling the fiscal stupidities of Herbert Hoover. "So many of our communities are thriving – let's make the rest like them," he implored, as if mere derring-do could turn South Shields into Cambridge, and Nottingham into Notting Hill. His pop at "can't-do sogginess" surely amounted to the grim spectacle of silver-spooned millionaire telling the rest of us to awaken an optimism completely contradicted by events. That's what millions of people feel like, and they have every right to.
Even in the hands of its more deft practitioners, politics is failing, at speed. The corrosion of trust that took root under New Labour and the catastrophic effects of the expenses crisis are obvious; perhaps even more crucially, the economic articles of faith that have so dominated the past 30 years are broken. The result is a vacuum that could be filled by one of three things: a reinvented one-nation Conservatism that amounts to more than the inexplicable credo of the "big society" bolted on to unreconstructed Thatcherism; a bold, modernised kind of social democracy; or a nasty, pinched populism that will reach for achingly predictable remedies. We all know the drill: raise the flag, pull up the drawbridge, send home the Poles, turn the screw on the poor.
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