The secret life of a party conference devotee (12 September 2008)
The delegates love conference season. But, as the parties get ready for a month of political jamborees, Lewis Baston recounts the experiences of the hundreds of others who travel to Brighton, Birmingham, Blackpool or Bournemouth to meet and greet the political elite each year
For the normal political activist – if that is not a contradiction in terms – a party conference is an infrequent treat, a brief and wonderful trip to what amounts to a small town inhabited by people who are politically sympathetic, and an opportunity to meet their party’s star performers. The conference debates, and the myriad meetings, debates and parties of the fringe are exciting, hectic stuff, and the adrenalin will carry one through.
But there is a whole other side to party conferences. If you work in public affairs for a cause, a charity, a commercial lobbyist, public sector body or as a political correspondent for the media, the conference season is the definitive end of summer. While the delegate or MP will only attend one conference, some of us go to all three (or more, for those with an interest in Scotland, Wales or smaller parties). Welcome to the sad subculture of the party conference exhibitor.
On the road
Each party, and each conference town, has its own distinctive atmosphere. Labour in Brighton, and the Conservatives in Bournemouth, are probably the best, and the Lib Dems in Blackpool probably the worst, for entertainment value. Blackpool was perennially unpopular, for its air of dereliction, its chilly grey seas, unreliable train connection at Preston and sometimes squalid hotels.
But it had some redeeming features as a conference venue, such as the rattling trams, the splendid Funny Girls drag show and the illuminations. Recently the lamp-posts along the sea front have been adorned with giant illuminated bloodshot eyeballs, which always evoked a smile of recognition from some conference delegates.
But Blackpool is no more, replaced by the less quirky charms of Manchester and Birmingham for the two big parties. Their conference centres may be very efficient, and large enough, but something is lost when the party conference is just another big-city event rather than the taking over of a seaside town. Hats off to the Lib Dems for sticking with Bournemouth, which is always a pleasant venue with its warm climate and sandy beaches and its ready supply of cheap and reasonable hotels near the conference centre.
The conference season has its own rhythm. The Liberal Democrats, unfortunately for them, go first in mid-September while the political classes are still struggling out of their summer torpor, and the conference is a lot smaller and more earnest than the other two. Labour’s is huge and hectic, and prone to sudden mood swings such as in 2006, when people decided they loved Tony Blair after all, and 2007, when it was overtaken with enthusiasm for an immediate election and rumours that that was about to happen.
Many exhibitors have a sneaking fondness for the Conservative conference. While stuffy Tories are very stuffy indeed, the fun Tories are probably more fun than anyone from the other two parties, and exhibitors are usually getting demob-happy by then, not to say a bit tired and hysterical. There is a decadent undertone, something of the night perhaps, about Tory conference.
Making an exhibition of oneself
The Labour and Conservative conferences are both enormous trade fairs with some people talking about their political ideas as if they mattered in a room off to one side. The exhibitors are put in rows of little booths in a hall, around which delegates, MPs and off-duty fellow exhibitors will wander while one tries to grab their attention. If you think about the windows of the red light district in Amsterdam, you are getting the idea, but at conference the middle-aged men in rumpled suits are the ones hawking their wares.
The stand will have been assembled, if you are fortunate, by professional contractors. The unfortunates put up their own stands, with the result that conference starts with an involuntary team-building exercise that leads to arguments, breakages and the realisation that some essential bit of kit was left in the lobby of the office back in London. I was maimed in a Stanley knife incident during this process at last year’s Conservative conference in Blackpool.
There is a physical syndrome that sets in as the conference season progresses. Bad breath is one of the first symptoms, aggravated by poor diet, hangovers and a constant flow of instant coffee, but combated with a visit to one of the stands (Royal Mail is often a good bet) dishing out powerful breath mints.
Part of the reason that exhibitors are getting puffy-faced and dead-eyed by the middle of the Labour conference is that a diet of fried breakfasts, canapés and alcohol is not a very healthy way to live, and it takes its toll after a while. A reasonable rule of thumb is that nothing in a fringe meeting buffet counts towards one’s “five a day”, even if it appears at first glance to contain vegetable products. In recent years the health sector pressure groups and professional bodies have got together and held their meetings in a “health hotel”, which also offers some health checks and, wonderfully, supplies of fruit. And, unlike rehab, it’s free and doesn’t take very long. Some exhibitors also give out bottled water.
Further complications include the compulsive twitching of “exhibitor’s knee”, the stiff back and the frozen, coat-hanger grin of someone who has spent all day trying to be charming and polite. A rest and a massage are probably the most sensible ways of dealing with these problems, but most people choose instead short-term oblivion at the cost of feeling even worse the next day, and go out and get blind drunk at fringe meetings.
Under the influence
If you are something of an insider, or know someone who is, there are the big receptions, held by the major newspapers (the Mirror reception at the Labour conference used to be legendary). An invitation to one of these is highly prized. However, most exhibitors have to settle for going to each other’s fringe meetings.
Market economics determines that the more loathsome the cause, the better the food and wine at the fringe meeting or evening reception. Some very worthy causes have the dreaded “cash bar” tag in the fringe programme. A general rule is: unless the fringe sponsors are very wealthy or morally suspect, stick to the red wine. Bad white wine can strip paint from walls, while bad red wine only gives one a bit of a headache.
After the fringe has exhausted itself, there are discos. Among the best of these is often the Absolutely Equal bash sponsored by various equality organisations. This is particularly fun at the Conservative conference, as one can play the game of “spot the Tory” among all the liberal voluntary and public-sector types huddling together for warmth and mutual support. After these, the conference hotel bars stay open pretty much all night, and this is where the most outlandish stuff happens. Some of it is touching, like a late-night impromptu Billy Bragg singalong that sometimes happens at Labour conference. Some of it is a frightening tribal ritual outsiders witness at their mortal peril, such as the infamous Glee Club at the Lib Dems where they sing scurrilous folk songs at their own expense and Paddy Ashdown tells a convoluted joke.
A scant few hours later one jolts awake, in one’s own or, even better, someone else’s, hotel room, knocks back some Solpadeine and wonders who on earth these people whose business cards have appeared in one’s pockets might be. Then you go and do it all again.
Politics is rock’n’roll for ugly people, and similar rules of etiquette apply. What goes on tour stays on tour. It is the height of bad form to tell tales about what happens at night when you take several thousand people with a shared interest nobody else appreciates, and fill them with as much alcohol as they can take. If you must have an ill-advised liaison with a fellow exhibitor, it is best left until the Conservative conference, as it is easier to avoid each other for one conference than it is for three.
The meaning of it all
David Cameron briefly contemplated abandoning annual conferences, but decided not to. His idea was, from a purely practical point of view, not without merit. But one party, or indeed one exhibiting organisation, would lose out if it alone decided to boycott the entire circus. We are trapped into doing conferences the way we have always done conferences. It’s stressful, it certainly counts as work (and often involves 16-hour days), and it’s generally bad for one’s health and wellbeing. But packing up at the end of the Conservative conference can be a sad, wistful business. For all its excess and absurdity, I love the conference season.