Bavaria has its Oktoberfest. Britain has the political party conferences. Two down. One to go. Alka-Seltzer please, matron. Two sachets.
When the Home Secretary last week attacked drunken behaviour she surely knew what she was talking about. Few places are quite as shimmeringly boozy as a party conference. Drinking starts as early as 10am and continues until breakfast. There is seldom much of a pause for solids. As a theatre critic, I sometimes puddle back to my conference hotel around 2am, horribly sober. The bars are still packed. It's like stepping into a Picasso painting, such is the disfigurement. Doing a 6am slot on GMTV in the main conference hotel foyer you have to step over still-quaffing semi-life forms, just about recognisable as political advisers.
Munich may do things slightly differently. There were no waitresses in bodiced dirndl dresses in Bournemouth. More's the pity. The Tories would go for the dirndl look, though. And if a tight-bodiced Heidi turned up at the Lib Dems there'd be a run on the local coronary unit. Heidi would then be found to be Derek, a civil servant from Croydon with trans-gender issues.
Conferences are nominally about policy discussion, debate, speeches and all that. Ha! Let the naive darlings of Voterland think that. We would not want the conference season to be seen for what it is: a three-week carnival, corruptingly convivial – and, in terms of activist democracy, an utter con.
The BBC affirms the political class's right to an annual thrash on the seaside by sending along a force as big as the British Army's expeditionary force to Helmand province. The Beeb honourably broadcasts what is said in the hall. Waste of time. If licence-fee payers are to be given a true picture, the BBC should arm its reporters with tiny concealed cameras. These could then capture the bibulous braying and bitching in the bars.
We have all seen the footage of old conferences, when Quintin Hogg and Nye Bevan and R A Butler would let rip. That is probably what civilians still understand by "party conference". Today's conferences? The emphasis nowadays is solely on the "party" bit, be it corporate drinks with companies seeking state contracts, or a charity bash promoting some narrow interest. "Special thanks for our sponsors, Liver Rot Gin."
The word "conference" is inaccurate. "Huddle" or "soft schmooze" or "shrewd sluicing", more like. This is where the business cards are slipped into palms and lobbyists tell MPs, "You must come to our box at Wembley."
Conferences are still about power but power no longer flows from the debates. It glugs from a bottle, down the throats of our governing elite. Last Sunday, some 1,000 sweaty bodies crammed into a champagne party thrown by the New Statesman. One of Gordon Brown's most seasoned confidants was seasoned all right – he was slurring. A minister slalomed up to hiss about something I had written about him two years ago. In the bar at Gordon Brown's hotel a former Blair apparatchik, now a lobbyist, squared up to the PM's right-hand man. Tory defector Quentin Davies MP had a contretemps with an over-refreshed polemicist. A friend of mine from the red-tops was still entertaining political aides at 7am.
No one seriously sits through the agenda in the hall. The speeches are little more than adverts. Last week, cabinet ministers had just seven minutes each. Activists were lucky if they got seven sentences.
It's a bit like being on a cricket tour with a pub XI. So where are we playing today? Blackpool? Back into the oompah-oompah Bierzelt. Members of the public not invited.Reuse content