In the great scheme of things, the projected curtailment of next week's Labour Party Conference does not, I know, amount to very much. Yet I am, I have to admit, gutted. I know it's not a fashionable thing to say, but I love the Labour Party Conference.
I can't help myself. Since 1994, when I lost my conference virginity, September has always been a month of high excitement for me, as the New Labour bandwagon rolls into Brighton and transforms the seaside town into a carnival of militant banners and billionaires.
Labour has always had its share of luvvie support, but the New Labour Conference in recent years has had glamour like Cannes has silicone implants. Inside its sacred security zone, you find a world where many of the rules of ordinary life have been suspended. The currency of survival is not cash, but invites and business cards. For example, my accommodation this year has been provided on the strict understanding that, in return, I blag a ticket to one of the most well-attended parties on the circuit, the New Statesman bash. And, of course, the more prestigious the party, the more valuable the invite.
Most valuable of all is the impossibly swish, black-tie "Conference Dinner". Getting a seat at this who's who of the Blair claque is impossible for all but the most trusted initiates. Having said that, I did once manage it, in 1997. That was when a member of the PM's office (she has since left – so don't sack anybody) offered to smuggle me in if I worked as a meeter and greeter of guests first. "Hi, Michelle," I smiled, as an ex-Eastender flipped her invite towards me. A big business baron handed me his card and, glancing at the name, I said "Hi, Bob." He looked as disgusted as if I had called him comrade. Aggressively jabbing a finger at the invitation, he hissed: "I have a title you know. Kindly use it!" But at least such humiliations allowed me to sip champagne behind a pillar, near the kitchens, and espy Anji Hunter, the friend and advisor to the PM, giggling, girlishly next to Mick Hucknall.
This is part of the joy of the conference. Being away from London and still on holiday from Westminster, ministers and their minions become more relaxed than they'd like to admit. Sure, they know that hacks lurk at every keyhole and earwig every conversation; but towards the end of a long day, even Tony's cronies need to let off steam.
The year of Mo Mowlam's famous conference ovation, she was hugged and grabbed wherever she went by adoring fans. One evening, she bowled into the exclusive upstairs bar of a prestigious hotel, exhausted but elated. Seeing nowhere to sit she simply hitched her skirt up and hopped on to a table edge. Legs splayed and a considerable amount of thigh showing, she sipped whisky and held the gaze of stunned tabloid editors and brat-pack Millbankers alike. "Come an' 'ave a go if you think yer 'ard enough," said her posture. Later, at the launch party, held in a nightclub, she grabbed Chris Evans and forced him to dance to Abba and The Bee Gees until even this supposedly seasoned party animal folded and slumped into a seat. Mo, to the misery of her minders, carried on shimmying way past 1am.
By day, such spontaneity is harder to find. Thanks to this administration's obsession with control, delegates and speakers are limited, in what they do or say in the main conference hall. The spirit of harmonious debate is all but crushed as men in suits wander among the seats, staring officiously at party members who look as if they might not cheer in the right places during a Blunkett or Blair speech. In this crushing atmosphere, an American style fizz and glitz has filled the palpable political void. In return for not getting too rowdy or going on strike, disillusioned party activists are shown celebrity-endorsed, promotional movies and given the chance to shake hands with David Blunkett or Cherie Blair.
And there's no doubt that the Blairs are still a big draw at conference. For those who dream of being near them, the best bet is traditionally to buy a ticket to Scots night (though this year, the usual ceilidh is being replaced by a simple reception). Here, at a kind of political Hogmanay, shopkeepers from Dundee swig whisky next to cynical Downing Street wonks desperate to flee the working-class atmosphere and return to whatever broadsheet party is on that night.
Welsh night languishes in a hidden corridor, at the side of the hotel, but the Caledonians can command about £6 a ticket for their bash. This is because Scots night is the only place (off-stage) where you may see Gordon and Tony cross paths. Generally, their diaries are arranged to make this as unlikely as possible. Indeed, even at Scots night, at the first sight of a bouffant Blair, Gordon flees back to a British Airways champagne reception or a private dinner with Saatchi & Saatchi executives. The only Blair-Brown pact that seems certain is this: at the Labour Party Conference, the Browns get to do the swanky stuff, while the Blairs are stuck glad-handing the grassroots.
At the opposite end of the political promenade to the Blair entourage at the Metropolitan Hotel, you can find both real debate and something close to an underground rebellion of party members. The big names here remain Tony Benn and Barbara Castle, and the Left also has its own separate gala event: the Tribune rally. This consists of a series of speeches presented from the stage of a slightly down-at-heel seaside theatre. It's always been a favourite event at conference, but with each year of Blair's leadership its popularity grows. The audience are largely mop-headed public sector workers, the elderly and Guardian cartoonists. Earnest voters with a stubborn belief that privatisation (in whatever form) ultimately means cuts in services are treated to traditional vaudeville fare in the shape of Bob Marshall-Andrews, who performs a comic routine, while the headline acts (last year, it was Roy Hattersley) prepare themselves.
At the millennium conference, Marshall-Andrews, the MP for Medway and a QC, donned full courtroom garb to present the case for the prosecution against "a fraudster known only as 'Dome'" and its supporters who "defrauded the general public of just under a billion pounds, m'lud". The audience lapped it up.
One year, the line-up included Gerry Adams and a leading unionist representative. Both were booked to speak specifically on welfare issues in Northern Ireland. Sadly, the unionist strayed from the script and gave Mark Seddon, the editor of Tribune and an NEC member, a near heart attack by asking, "What's the difference between the IRA and the Spice Girls?" We shook our heads. "At least you know that Geri has left the Spice Girls." The grandmother sitting next to me, pouring tea from her Thermos flask, spilt it over her knees in shock. The rest of the audience held its breath. We stared at the inscrutable Adams, trying to gauge his response. Cuddly, in his little glasses, beard and woolly brown jumper, he threw his hands up and chuckled in a what-a-naughty-boy-you-are kind of way. His mission, to win and not worry the audience, was a success. He seemed about as dangerous as a quietly spoken, small-town teacher.
OK, I'll confess. It's not really the thought of spending less time with Peter Mandelson that makes me sad at the thought of this year's proceedings at Brighton being scaled down. For me – and for liberal politicos like me – the Labour Party Conference is far more than just a networking opportunity; it's our very own Edinburgh Festival, a left-of-centre jamboree complete with loony fringe acts, flowing booze and wannabe comedians (one posing as PM) testing dreadful material. It's also, potentially, a celebration of democracy. Until the terrorists launched their murderous attacks on the United States, there was a real chance that, this year, the virtual disappearance of the threat of a "Tory win" would have allowed some old-fashioned, bloody-minded, hard-core political dissent. That prospect seems to have receded somewhat now; but even a scaled-down, low-profile Conference 2001 is an occasion to be relished. Cynics may dismiss the event as the selfish posturing and champagne-swilling of the liberal élite, but they should remember that this is the human face of democracy. It may not always be an edifying spectacle, but we are lucky to have it. (I cannot imagine, for example, that the Taliban have any such annual festival of political exuberance ). And I, for one, intend to enjoy it.Reuse content