Come to the party? Thanks, but no thanks

It was the sort of event for people trying to survive a week at the conference on free peanuts and beer
THE OTHER day I received an invitation to the New Statesman party at the Labour Party Conference at Bournemouth, which was nice but unexpected. It was unexpected because I have no connection with the New Statesman apart from having done the the odd book review. It was nice, because it is always nice to get invitations to parties you don't have to go to, or indeed don't want to go to.

I don't want to sound ungrateful, but it was quite clear that this wasn't the sort of party which you drive a hundred miles to get to (which is what I would have to do). It was the sort of party which is thrown for people who are already staying just round the corner, or upstairs in the same hotel, hard at work covering the Labour Party Conference, or taking part in it, or trying to survive for a week there on free peanuts and beer, or merely trying to disrupt it...

Like most people in this country, I have never been to a party conference. Like most people in this country, it has never occurred to me to go to a party conference. Like most people in this country, it has never occurred to me to want to go to a party conference, any more than it has occurred to me to want to go to an Orange parade, an arms fair, a ploughing competition or a Radio 1 Roadshow. These are all for the initiates, the people who take it seriously. It's nice that these things happen, I suppose, as long as they don't involve us.

The difference between party conferences and ploughing competitions, apart from the fact that ploughing sounds as if it might be visually interesting, is that ploughing competitions are not widely reported and given very little TV coverage. But party conferences, in this curious time of year when summer is reluctantly over, and autumn hasn't quite got the hang of things yet, and the TV companies haven't started their fresh season of brand new repeats yet, party conferences are all over the screens like some dreadful virus. Party conference coverage fills the media like flood water in the basement, full of strange floating objects and contamination dangers.

It's that time of year when John or Jim is mysteriously in Harrogate. You know that, because Radio 4's Today tells you so. "Today comes from Sue and me in the studio, and Jim in Harrogate."

For a moment you wonder why Jim has to go to Harrogate to present a morning Radio 4 programme. Then it clicks. Jim is in Harrogate to cover a party conference! Then it clicks again, but this time it's the off switch.

It's the time of year when Tony Blair gets up at a podium and says that he wants to be Prime Minister until he drops dead, and the people who are at the conference get so excited at this that it becomes the lead item on BBC news and in Sunday papers, and the rest of us think "So what?" and look to see if there is any real news.

Because nobody, except the people who are there at Bournemouth, has the slightest interest in these things. Even in the days when party conferences genuinely decided things, and changed policy, there was not much noticeable excitement on the part of the public. Nowadays, when party conferences are meetings of the faithful, where the faithless don't get any time at the microphone, where everything is controlled and nothing spontaneous, and where Tony Blair reading bad poetry - too bad to parody - is thought to be news, there is absolutely no reason why anyone should pay attention.

Party conferences, to put it another way, are just like the Edinburgh Fringe. If you're at Edinburgh, as I know from experience, it seems like the centre of the universe, the hub of some wonderful soap opera. If you're not there, it means nothing. If you're not there, even the Perrier Award means nothing. But if you are there - as all these TV and radio producers and comic comperes and arts commentators are - it seems terribly important and the airwaves get filled with it, while the rest of us have to suffer, as if we've blundered into someone else's birthday party.

Same with party conferences.

Dear Mr Kington, I take it this means you won't be coming to the party? Yours, `The New Statesman'.

Dear New Statesman, Yes, thanks very much. Hope it goes well, though.