Artillery Row

Life of the party

Party conferences are insights into the parties’ souls — insights that are not always reassuring

Party Conference season is here. It’s the highlight of every political nerd’s calendar, when the great and the good from each party get together with their grassroots to drink too much and argue. In that sense, it’s much like a family Christmas, but with more drugs (I mean Ibuprofen and cough drops, obviously). 

Of course, the hacks love it: recording the atmosphere, charting who’s on the up, who’s in trouble and extracting indiscreet quotes from tired and emotional politicians at 2 am. The only losers are satirists, really most of the behaviour on display is far more self-destructive and ridiculous than anything that might be fashioned by a tightly-deadlined professional wag. 

These conferences are valuable, though, and not just for the attendees enjoying hi-jinks, enduring sore heads and generating excuses for their partners. They are insights into the parties’ souls, insights that are not always reassuring. 

Unity is not a concept that troubles Starmer’s Labour Party

Naturally, the Liberal Democrats conducted their conference largely online. For some years now, this has been a party defiant in its rejection of normality, so returning to normal at the same time as everyone else was out of the question. The only real takeaway was that Sir Ed Davey who feels the need to have the pronouns “he/him” in his Twitter bio, just in case nobody realises is unable to define what a woman is. Elsewhere, a bevy of screechy activists took to the stage to kick down a small blue wall a gauche spectacle, the only purpose of which was to relieve Sarah Teather’s 2011 stand-up routine of the title “Most Cringeworthy Thing Ever”. At least the Liberals appear united, but that is easier when there are only five of you.

Unity is not a concept that troubles Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party. One of the ironic quirks of Labour “solidarity!” is that the more their activists clench their fists and shout it, the less of it there is. 

Things got off to an odd start with Deputy Leader and darling of the Left, Angela Rayner announcing her mother fed her dog food and shaving foam, though she wisely resisted claiming that it hadn’t done her any harm. She then moved on to the Left’s favourite past-time: calling Tories “scum” (though it’s a term of affection, apparently). The party’s leader sorry, former leader Jeremy Corbyn supported her, as did John McDonnell, a man whose idea of a good ol’ chuckle is fantasising over his opponents being assassinated or lynched. Adding to the carnival atmosphere, disgraced bloviator John Bercow spoke at a fringe event I’ll let you know when he’s finished. Bercow was famed for his crass, antediluvian views when he was on the hard Right of the Tories; how appropriate, then, that in his twilight years, he finds himself lauded on the hard Left. 

Sir Keir Starmer’s speech deserves special attention, now that we’ve all regained consciousness. “Coal before dole!” read the mask on the face of the woman cheering on his “Green New Deal”. “We are patriots,” announced Sir Keir, ten minutes before the main hall broke into The Red Flag. The Sun described it as “dull”. A step in the right direction for the leadership, perhaps, but Labour conferences are anything but dull. 

It’s widely acknowledged that the most fun conference is the Tories’. Margaret Thatcher dancing with Kenneth Baker at the Young Conservatives’ Ball… okay, that was in 1989. But the best events do feel like they’re from 1989 or earlier. 

All the best material is overheard in the bar

An old hack told me the Conservative’s conference is the most alcohol-fuelled of all, and that does not surprise me. I was once standing at the bar, far too early in the day, when a very senior BBC journalist sidled up, ordered a double gin, downed it, said, “God, I needed that” and sauntered off. There are, of course, many more men than women; “everyone goes gay at conference” is a common refrain amongst the younger activists. Some sensible activity is attempted, too, and the discussions of policy and campaigning methods often yield intriguing contributions from the floor usually from ruddy-cheeked men in salmon-pink trousers. “I’ve been involved with the party and campaigning a very long time,” a sharply dressed gentleman once declared. “May I suggest the use of modern technologies, such as the printing press?” 

But all the best material is overheard in the bar. I like to keep notes: “The British working class are not racist. They love everyone except the French.” “Some people collect stamps, I collect cars.” “No, we’re not married but we do have property together.” “He’s an arsehole and I should know, I’m his Association Chair.” Hopefully, the brouhaha will be just as entertaining as party members dodge the eggs and “Hang the Tories” banners while meeting this week in Manchester. 

Without necessarily meaning to, conferences heighten each party’s ingrained characteristics. No matter how much the respective leaderships attempt to manage it, the beating heart is revealed. Since the rise of Corbynism, and the reinvigoration of genuinely nasty left-wing politics the type of politics that prohibits female MPs like Rosie Duffield from entering the conference venue this has probably been better for the Conservatives than Labour. But, whatever your views, parties getting together annually is democracy incarnate, and we should be proud that in this country, events like these boozy and silly, sometimes edgy, always ill-disciplined happen. 

Long live the Party Conference. Hic.

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