Ellie Levenson: Singles bars have nothing on political conventions

It can get lonely in those hotel rooms, delegates will tell you, away from home

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As the party conference season kicks off properly this week with the Liberal Democrats in Bournemouth, after a pre-season warm-up last week when the TUC went to Brighton, people both inside and outside the political bubble are asking the same question: what are the conferences for? Is it the stunts such as Michael Meacher swimming in the sea in Blackpool in 2002 after promising to do so four years earlier if Blackpool beach met European cleanliness standards?

As the party conference season kicks off properly this week with the Liberal Democrats in Bournemouth, after a pre-season warm-up last week when the TUC went to Brighton, people both inside and outside the political bubble are asking the same question: what are the conferences for? Is it the stunts such as Michael Meacher swimming in the sea in Blackpool in 2002 after promising to do so four years earlier if Blackpool beach met European cleanliness standards?

Or perhaps it's the celebrity spotting, the highlight thus far being when Bill Clinton and Kevin Spacey shared a meal with Alastair Campbell in a Blackpool McDonald's the same year as Meacher's stunt. (In fact, I was in McDonald's that night as they munched away but persuaded the security guards to let me out as I wanted to find my friends and some more alcohol. Silly me, passing up the chance to lobby them to, well I don't know what, let me take to the stage at the Old Vic or ghost-write Clinton's autobiography).

For some people, Conference is a fashion parade - think Theresa May's leopard-print kitten heels that stole the show, and the headlines, for the Tories in Bournemouth two years ago. For others, they are the place to make money through corporate sponsorship for fringe meetings, and to get publicity for their causes. And then there's the networking and the parties. As John Kampfner said in The Independent on Sunday last month: "journalists and lobbyists have a ball, with the festivities kicking off on the Sunday night courtesy of my very own New Statesman and culminating in a knees-up on the Wednesday night thanks to the Mirror."

But actually, the answer, as answers often are, is none of the above. No, the primary purpose for the party conferences is to act as a dating agency for young politicos keen to meet people of their own political leanings. For though this isn't an essential part of sexual attraction, it is fair to say that having a partner with the same political beliefs will sure make things easier when having to decide which school your children go to, whether to buy private health care and which newspaper you want to have delivered.

(Admittedly, I dated a Tory once, and none of these were my primary concern. Rather, as a card carrying Labour Party member I was worried that had it worked out our babies would rebel and turn out to be Liberal Democrats).

In America, a number of internet dating agencies cater to political preference. www.republicansingles.com (strapline: "A community to meet the 'right' person!") has on its front page a picture of the Statue of Liberty and an American eagle. Its sister site, www.democraticsingles.com, is essentially the same but swaps the picture of the eagle for an image of the US Capitol building in Washington DC. Until such sites reach the UK however, political animals have to find other ways to meet their mates.

The party conferences are ideal for this kind of matchmaking for several reasons. First, they are hugely security conscious. Every delegate, exhibitor, speaker and journalist has to apply in advance for a security pass and go through several security checks. To get in and out of the security zone, which is where most of the parties, many of the fringe events, and all of the actual conference proceedings are held, people have to show their security pass and pass all of their belongings through x-ray machines. Consequently, conference is as close as possible to a safe environment full of "safe people".

Second, there are vast amounts of alcohol. It is quite possible at the conferences to start drinking the free booze at early afternoon receptions, continue through the afternoon fringe meetings and the evening parties and not stop until the bar closes in the main conference hotels in the small hours of the morning.

Third, it can get lonely in those hotel rooms, delegates will tell you, away from home, not knowing who wants to talk to you because they're fascinated in your policy ideas and who wants to talk to you because at some stage they know they will need your vote.

And combined with the above reasons, there is a cloak of secrecy that covers conference. Safe in the knowledge that everyone is doing something they shouldn't, be it drinking too much, schmoozing the wrong sponsor or propositioning the wrong person, there is an unofficial vow that what goes on at conference stays at conference, unless, of course, you want to take it further.

I am surprised that no dating agencies have picked up on the fact that the conferences are prime pickings for them. Each year I expect to receive a form with my application for a pass asking me questions such as who are my political influences (Blair and Marquand or Uncles Ho and Jo) or how I like to spend my time (delivering leaflets or attending local Labour Party meetings). Hidden away in a discreet corner of the exhibition hall, such a stand could end up with you taking far more home than some branded lollipops, a copy of Tribune and a very sore head.

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