The three circles of hell

Today’s glossy big-city party conferences are even more nightmarish than the traditional grim trips to run-down seaside resorts

This article is taken from the October 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

I hate party conferences. They have burned away a significant portion of my time on this earth. Every year since 2001, with only the break provided by Covid-19 for relief, I’ve attended at least two and generally three conferences. At between three and five days for each one, that’s more than 200 days and about 100 nights’ of sleep. That’s more than six months. Muggers do less time than that, or used to in the days when the police tried to catch them. 

Hating conference is a performative status ritual of Westminster life. It’s a way of parading your vast experience of the political scene, showing off a sophisticate’s jaded appetites for the things lesser dwellers in the SW1A village find important and interesting. It’s also a good way to argue that things aren’t as good as they used to be. 

Conferences really aren’t though. They’ve changed, meaning conference-hating has changed too. The most important change came in the days of Tony Blair. In 2006, Blair’s last conference as Labour leader was a historic shift in the geographical sense. That September, Labour met in Manchester. With that meeting, the party that sang “Things can only get better” made conferences permanently worse. 

It was an understandable choice, of course. Until then, conferences had been held in the three Bs – Brighton, Bournemouth and Blackpool. And of these three, the grimmest is Blackpool. 

It was on Golden Mile that I cut my teeth as a conference hater. Like many a young reporter who thought he’d done well to make it to London and a job among the smart folk, I didn’t take well to a life of nylon sheets. I’ve reported from more than 50 countries, some recovering from wars and others still fighting them. In none of them did I eat or sleep as badly as on my first trip to Blackpool for the Trades Union Congress, which connoisseurs used to consider part of conference season — and naively booked into the Norbreck Castle “hotel”. 

Amazingly, the Norbreck is still in business

A quick internet search tells me that, amazingly, the Norbreck is still in business and is frequently reviewed as the worst hotel in Britain. Which can only mean that the old vomit-smelling prison block has improved a bit, because as old conference hands cheerily told me when I was an inmate there, back then it was widely considered the worst in Europe.

To be fair to the Norbreck though, it’s only the second-worst conference hotel I’ve stayed in. First prize goes to a bijou fleapit on Brighton’s Regency Square where a missing window pane meant I woke up one morning because it was raining on me. When I staggered back to the room 20 hours later, I found I was cohabiting with a pigeon that had comprehensively redecorated. And even that was a more pleasant experience than sharing the bathroom on the landing with the (now quite famous) colleague who’d booked the place and cheerfully explained it was still a lot more comfortable than his school dorms had been. 

Of course, any serious conference-goer spends only a few, insensible, hours a night in their hotel. The rest is spent … where, exactly? Any conference is, in theory at least, about the main hall and what goes on there: speeches, debates and — for some, at least — a few votes. 

There is good sport to be had in the main hall, mainly at the expense of Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet ministers who — often with little experience of big set-piece speeches — have to address a very big room half-full of people paying them very little attention. Liz Truss became famous with “That is a disgrace” but honestly, that speech was electrifying when compared to then Transport Secretary, Douglas Alexander, telling Central Hall in Manchester (capacity 2,000; actual audience 40): “I. Am. Passionate. About. Buses.” 

Memories of Douglas’s look of burning hatred when he realised the ensuing shouts of “Bravo! More! More!” were coming from the Sunday Times’s Tim Shipman and I still warm my heart on a cold evening. 

But no-one really spends much time in the main hall, which will anyway only be open and active for a few hours every day. The rest of the time is often spent milling about. You can drift into the exhibition hall and be given a pen by the Government of the Falklands and some boiled sweets by the Graphene Wool Manufacturers’ Association. You can spend good money on bad food and worse coffee. 

You can come to fringe debates where serious people from think-tanks talk earnestly about important things. (I’m putting on about 20 fringes across the conference season this year. And while I honestly do enjoy debating pension reform or educational inequality, I accept it’s not everyone’s idea of excitement.)

Or you can just drink

Or you can just drink. In fact, you have to drink. These days I drink a fraction of what I used to, but still can’t imagine conference sober. Drink kills time and numbs pain. It silences the little voice in your head asking you what on earth you’re doing here in this demi-monde bubble, separated from the country outside not just by huge security barriers but by mutual incomprehension. 

Nothing captures the conference experience like a group of professional politicos, drunk on someone else’s money and literally sealed off from the country around them, talking earnestly about what “the public” think and want and expect of politics and politicians.

Of course, drink is behind many of my best-worst conference memories, all of which take place late at night: the night three of us got an exclusive on the imminent sacking of a Cabinet minister then failed utterly to get it published because none of us could remember how to use a Blackberry; the night a big Tory donor calculated that the day’s turmoil on the US markets had wiped £200 million of his net worth “so we might as well just keep drinking”; the night I found myself stepping in to stop a fistfight between two Fleet Street editors on the steps of the Highcliff hotel in Bournemouth while a third laid bets on who’d win. (He still owes me £20.) 

Then there was the night a senior Conservative Party official took sidesplitting glee in describing how a quite famous and very well-connected Tory columnist had propositioned a young female activist in the bar of the Imperial in Blackpool. The full story involves a large sum of cash, a safe seat, a second young lady, a wardrobe and an unfortunate passerby in a wheelchair. But I can’t go into details because what happens in Blackpool stays in Blackpool. Probably because it’s developed scurvy and hasn’t the strength to leave. 

But conferences did leave Blackpool, sick of the crumbling Winter Gardens and the dreadful train service and the worse food. Labour’s move to Manchester was the start of a grim trend that means the two main parties tend towards big cities. The Tories alternate drearily between Manchester and Birmingham. Labour sometimes returns to Brighton, but also favours northern cities: this year it’s Liverpool, the worst of the lot. 

Conferences switching from towns to cities could be a metaphor for politics and culture as a whole over the last two decades. 

Hating conferences in Blackpool was different to hating conferences in the big cities. Conferences by the sea might have been squalid and beneath the dignity of us clever folk from Westminster, but they did us good. Almost 68 percent of voters in Blackpool backed Brexit in 2016 and I bet any one of them would have done a better job of predicting the referendum result than we Westminster village idiots who hadn’t set foot in their town for more than a decade. 

And what do we get instead of dirty B&Bs, peeling paint and grotty conference venues? Comfort and efficiency. Corporate hotels and professional-quality AV. Dinners at hotels and restaurants that also have branches in London. It’s metro- meh — blandness, perfected. To be in the “secure zone” of a modern conference is to be anywhere, and nowhere. It’s a great place to spend time with other people who work in and around Westminster and are, like you, there because someone is paying them to be there and paying for them to be there. 

Actual party members are an increasingly rare sight behind the bars of the conference enclosure. The big cities are more expensive places to visit but that matters less if you can put it on expenses. (MPs can’t, which is why they too tend to stay away if they can.) Cities are also much more expensive places to stage events, which allows the parties to squeeze yet more cash from exhibitors and visitors. The Tory gathering nets millions for the party each year. 

After the rude, raw experience of the old seaside, big city conferences are flavourless and joyless, but the parties have no need of those plentiful and cheap B&Bs. They’ve been shedding members for decades. In the 1980s, there were more than a million Tory members and more than 600,000 Labour ones. Even when I first went to Blackpool, the Tories had 300,000 members, a figure that’s fallen below 200,000. Most see no reason to go to a conference that offers them little chance to speak and less to be heard. It’s been well over a decade since anyone shouted “bring back hanging” in the main hall at a Conservative conference. 

Jeremy Corbyn actually reversed his party’s decline in membership, with a crowd who brought a certain malevolent energy back to Labour to gatherings. Those numbers are now falling again, the professionals once again taking back control; professional conference-goers like me once again equally at home in the conference bar in Manchester or Liverpool or wherever it is this week. And if you happen to bump into me there, buy me a drink and I’ll tell you the story about the wardrobe and the wheelchair. 

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover