2CEX79C Jack Straw MP at Labour Party Conference in Brighton. 02 October 1991. Photo: Neil Turner

Block votes and nutters

There was a time when the Labour conference really mattered, before it became a stage-managed platform for social media hits and soundbites

This article is taken from the October 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

I have many memories from the Labour Party conferences I attended some three decades ago. Certainly, when you walk in on Tony Benn in his pyjamas you never forget it (we’ll come to that in a minute). As a researcher at the Labour-supporting Fabian Society think tank in the 1990s, the yearly visit to Blackpool, Brighton or Bournemouth was always inked firmly into the diary. Now it’s Liverpool (this year and last) or Manchester (Brighton last hosted Labour in 2019). But I’ve not been to Labour conference since 2004, and have no intention of ever going again if I can help it.

Nothing better illustrates how different Labour conference is today than the fact that Bournemouth hasn’t hosted Labour since 2007 and Blackpool last saw the party in 2002. Decamping to the seaside for five days of plotting, meeting, voting, cavorting, drinking, and — rarely — eating wasn’t just about taking in the sea air, although the bracing walk between hotels and the conference centre in British October weather was always part of the experience. It was part of the political life of the country, when Labour would — with occasional fits of unity — find ways to try to rip itself apart. Conference mattered. 

From the bennite wars of the 1980s and the Militant years to John Smith’s 1993 omov (one member, one vote) fight, and even Blair’s first conference speech in 1994, when he argued for the abolition of Clause iv (Labour’s constitutional commitment to “the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”) and almost no one in the hall realised what he was saying, Labour conference was the fulcrum on which the party’s future turned. Battles were fought at fringe meetings, in the bars, on the conference floor, on the platform and in the — literally — smoke-filled rooms.

If you wanted to understand what was going on you had to understand compositing and referencing back. You had to know about CLP delegates and union motions. You had to know who was on the Conference Arrangements Committee. You had to understand the make-up of the National Executive Committee. You had to grasp all these nuances of Labour conference, just for starters.

And you had to understand all of that to understand British politics, because Labour conference mattered. Today, there’s still a Conference Arrangements Committee, there’s still compositing and all the rest, but it’s just part of a stage show so that those who want to can pretend conference and its votes still matter as anything more than a vehicle for TikTok clips of Keir Starmer and Wes Streeting.

Labour activists used to deride the Conservative conference as a vacuous exercise that existed only as a platform for set-piece speeches by party bigwigs and a gathering of the faithful for their annual week of political self-indulgence. Which is now also a serviceable description of Labour conference. Conference died — was killed — under Blair. The leader who mounted a coup to change the party snuffed conference out, ignoring it when it needed to be ignored and aped the Tories in using it only for speeches and stage-managed votes of support.

That’s no bad thing, for all the nostalgia I have for conference of old. When Jeremy Corbyn became leader in 2015 there were any number of column inches devoted to the composition of the membership that had elected him — as if a load of Labour members had suddenly emerged from the asylum. 

But all three mainstream political parties have always been a coalition of the sane and the nutters. And for Labour’s nutters to be given more than a walk-on role in British politics — to have a voice and a vote at Labour conference — was always one of the party’s Achilles heels. 

The union block vote has come to be viewed as representing everything rotten about Old (or rather, pre-Blair) Labour. But on any number of occasions it saved the party from the excesses of the nutters. (If you think I’m missing the mark with the label “nutter”, I have so many stories to tell you from my time on the Executive Committee of my local Constituency Labour Party. Such as when one prominent councillor insisted to me after Blair was elected leader that he was actually an Austrian agent sent to infiltrate the party.)

Labour has always had — still has — plenty of highly placed nutters, too

It’s not just the rank and file. Labour has always had — still has — plenty of highly placed nutters, too. At conference they would grow in stature. Liverpool MP Eric Heffer was objectively a minor figure in Labour history. And he must have walked out of hundreds of meetings and speeches in his life, if only to go for a pee. 

But when he walked out of Neil Kinnock’s Bournemouth conference speech in 1985, when the then leader attacked Militant-infested Liverpool council for “the grotesque chaos of a Labour council — a Labour council — hiring taxis to scuttle round a city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers”, his walk-out was a huge story, and remains an iconic moment in party history. It mattered because these people had power as part of the process of conference. What they did mattered. It could sway delegates. It could change votes, and with that the direction of the party and thus of politics itself.

I was lucky to be in my twenties when conference was still something. Not least because I still had stamina. I remember my first conference — Brighton in 1991. I was research assistant to Peter Shore, the veteran Labour MP who was punctilious about making sure his staff got to know people. We were in the Metropole Hotel when Robin Day walked past, spotted Peter and came to say hello. Peter introduced us and we ended up having dinner. I was in heaven.

Working for Peter opened all sorts of doors and after I moved to the Fabians in 1992 I developed a reputation as a “moderniser”, pushing such heresies as the left-wing case for school vouchers and the idea that there might be lessons from the continent on healthcare delivery. That was fine in the confines of SW1, but there is a fundamental point about all party conferences that made it not so fine. 

For 51 weeks a year you can spend time only with people you want or need to spend time with. At conference you are confined in a bubble with everyone — including people you spend the rest of the year avoiding. When the only thing you are known for is sacrilege, the experience can be less than enjoyable. 

Despite all that, Brighton and Bournemouth conferences were fun, all the more so with hindsight. But as for Blackpool: no sooner had I arrived than I would start to count down the days until I could leave.

It didn’t help that in Blackpool we would have a block booking in a B&B. Everything that’s said about Blackpool landladies was true. One night I’d arranged to meet a Labour staffer for an early dinner — we were going to the same fringe meeting and thought we’d be clever and eat first. My B&B offered a three-course dinner for some bargain price, so I had booked it. 

The first course was soup, but as we were in a rush we said we’d skip it and just have mains and a pudding. The landlady looked at us as if we had just called her daughter a whore: “This is a three-course meal. Not a two-course meal. I will bring three courses and you’ll eat three courses.”

But for me Blackpool will always be about Tony Benn. Although he and Peter Shore were godfather to each other’s children, having risen through Labour as fellow modern-looking, modern-sounding young men in the 1950s and 60s (the word moderniser had not yet been coined), they went for many years without speaking after Benn decided to turn on the party and make himself the standard bearer of the hard left. 

But by the time I worked for Peter they had had a rapprochement and Benn had spoken at Peter’s adoption meeting for the 1992 election. We lived near each other and Benn gave me a lift back in his Mini. He was as bad a driver as you might imagine, but the real weirdness was that the most revered left-winger in Britain spent the journey ranting to me about how the Japanese were taking over the world, how sly they were and how we were all ignoring it.

But bizarre as that was, it was the next time I saw him, at that year’s Blackpool conference, that is even firmer in my memory. We were staying in the same B&B. I didn’t know this, until one night I came back to go to bed. When I put the key in my door it didn’t work, which was annoying, but when I turned the handle it opened. And sitting there in bed in his pyjamas reading was Tony Benn. The key didn’t work because it wasn’t my room. (He was charming about it.)

I am sure this year’s conference will be everything Keir Starmer wants from it. The social media hits will be legion and the news coverage fawning. But as far as I am concerned, Labour conference it ain’t.

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