I’ve come to despise all signs of autumn, including football, red leaves, cappuccinos and intelligent cinema releases. There is nothing wrong with these things, but taken together they herald the return of winter.
Worst of all is the party conference season. Now the Liberal Democrats are in government political journalists are forced to go to all three. That’s three straight weeks of late night drinking, early mornings, forced copy about precisely nothing and conversations with people who always seem to have a bit of sandwich in the corner of their mouth.
Everyone secretly recognises there is no reason these things should exist. Mass membership of British political parties is as archaic a notion as standing during the national anthem or snorting tobacco. The parties (with the honourable exception of the Lib Dems) don’t let members vote on policy anymore. Since Blair, they actively try to start fights with their own supporters in order to prove how ‘tough’ they are. Party leaderships long ago considered mass membership more of a liability than an asset.
The lack of membership means there’s no real politics going on. Every summit follows the same pattern: frenzied speculation about leadership challenges in the run-up and stifling tedium during the event. The last time a party leader was forced to step down during a conference was Harold Macmillan in 1963. The Tory leader was misdiagnosed with inoperable prostrate cancer, prompting a premature resignation. “Some few will be content with the success they have had in the assassination of their leader,” he responded, desultory and proud to the end.
That’s a tenuous example, but the best one. Conference would be the worst time to get rid of a leader. It just doesn’t happen, no matter how much commentators pretend it might. All the political journalists in the country are in the same city, away from home, drunk and bored. It would be a feeding frenzy. Even Iain Duncan Smith, who whined “the quiet man is turning up the volume” as his aides patrolled the hall making sure people applauded, was only stabbed in the back weeks later.
Without a genuine leadership struggle, reporters are forced to hype up the leader’s conference speech. Modern politics is such a drab, inoffensive affair that these events prove instantly forgettable. I have already forgotten what was in Nick Clegg’s speech. Something about the deficit, I imagine.
I now spend the speeches looking forward to when the leader kisses his wife afterwards. It is a moment of almost apocalyptic awkwardness. The British are terrible at public displays of affection, and this is the most theatrical sign of intimacy imaginable. The kiss is usually staccato and grim; two sets of mouths meeting, like businessmen seated uncomfortably close on a railway platform. The party press office has even taken to emailing out details of the wife’s dress. Clegg’s wife Miriam, for instance, was wearing a £390 white knee-length ‘New York dress’ by Scottish designer Henrietta Ludgate and orange heels from Zara.
For proud women like Miriam, who happens to earn far more than her husband, the conference season is a social torture they can barely endure. In order to prove what a ‘normal’ person the leader is, the wives are forced on stage, looking proud and pretty under pain of death. There is something profoundly ugly about an event which credits the man for his thoughts and the woman for her dress. Miriam, as a glamorous, intelligent, and – most importantly – foreign specimen, is always given a particularly rough ride. The Spanish-born lawyer “goes by her maiden name of Miriam Gonzalez Durantez”, the Daily Mail reported, before repeatedly referring to her as “Miriam Clegg”.
Without any actual membership, genuine political stories or speeches of substance, all that is left is the drinking. Lobbyists, journalists and politicians engage in a gruesome sports day of alcoholism. It starts about 6pm and ends sometime in the early morning. In the chosen hotel bar (the Midland in Manchester, the Hyatt in Birmingham) hundreds of men, and a few women, press up against each other – as jammed as a rush hour tube – and talk into each other’s face. You can almost see the bad breath rise from the lobby, like some grotesque mist. It’s a disgusting orgy of networking. By three in the morning, prominent journalists are reduced to pouring drinks down Cabinet ministers’ throats; desperate to get them drunk enough to reveal something and hoping they’ll be sober enough to jot it down.
There is no point to any of it. But the key to understanding the arrangement is, as ever, in the money. The political parties get a cut of the hotel bar’s takings. It’s a fair deal – they bring a lot of people down in the dead zone of October, and in return they get a slice. That is no small amount of money, given how much is drunk and how steeply marked-up the prices are. It’s a vital financial lifeline to parties with no real membership.
The lobbyists accomplish nothing, but they can email the boss and tell him they got 15 minutes with the under-secretary of state for so-and-so, which sounds much more impressive than it is. The hacks get to drink for free for three weeks and avoid their wife and children. Everyone wins. Except the public, obviously.
Never come. Never ever come anywhere near one of these things. You’re not missing out on anything.