Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: The party conferences were as boozy and tense as ever

I love attending not for the big, stage-managed speeches, nor to share the endless gossip, but for the intelligent discussions at small, intense events
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Because of serious mumsy duties I could only dip in and out of the party conferences this year. Still, my jotter was easily filled with quirky observations, conversations overheard, startling encounters and feelings, unwanted responses so different from those of jobbing political journalists, real party animals who butt energetically during this season of red mist and acerbic fruitfulness. I had no private dinners with ministers, was not privy to bits of un-attributable information, was not a delegate, not a loyalist and obviously not clubbable.

An outsider then, bringing you notes from the small islands that form when the party faithful and media gather, now no longer in old, fun English seaside towns but old industrial cities of furnaces and iron, shippers and financial adventurers, of labour enslavement and muscular values. That grim and steely Victorian era was evoked by the choice of venues. Time to read Mrs Gaskell again and Disraeli's Sybil, or The Two Nations, in which the brutality of child labour is revealed, and Dickens. Rich boulevardiers still carry on splurging and tittering, but for ordinary folk playful Britain is no more. Hastings Pier, fun palace once for workers and their families, was destroyed by a fire last week. Perhaps it was a suicide, a self- immolation as the hard times come.

At the Liberal Democrat conference, most obvious was the huge gap between the public face of the party and the unease that had befallen many of the faithful. They are lost; the old compasses are obsolete. As one young Cleggite told me: "It's like we have given them sat-navs and modern cars but they won't even try to use either. They want to be out of power, something they understand. I tried to explain this to a member and she threw her sparkling water over me."

Sparkling water, not red wine: so Liberal Democrat. Three teachers said they were "disgusted" with the Coalition and an Asian activist was upset that hers is still, as she put it, "a Milky Bar party. Even the Tories are now happily milk chocolate." Still, the happier attendees bought me drinks and coffees and assured me that the Liberal Democrats were taking both power and diversity seriously, learning from the Tories. Here's hoping.

In Manchester after Labour's leadership contest, members were both emotional and exhausted. "So, happy about the result?" was the usual start-up conversation. The answer, however diplomatic, quickly led to an argument.

I said David Miliband's reputation was stained both by his public support for the Iraq war (sorry, his private qualms are, and were, worthless) and his obfuscations and unwillingness to open up proper investigations into alleged torture and rendition by the US and UK personnel. His supporters were enraged when I brought up this ignominious past. One shouted: "People like you lost us the election. The war is over. Go get therapy." Another asked me furiously if I thought I knew better than "top left-of-centre columnists" David Aaronovitch, Nick Cohen and Christopher Hitchens (all of whom supported the invasion). Yes, on this, I think I do.

As ever, Labour is still the most racially mixed party, though this year there appeared to be fewer delegates from the old "ethnic" strongholds.

Ed Miliband was mercilessly mocked for the way he looks and sounds – something that usually only happens to female politicians. His lips, eyes, hair, nasal blockages, clothes, sex appeal (or not) were fair game. Deeply unpleasant. Some old ministers were shuffling, sitting quietly in corners with hangdog expressions. Jack Straw looked like a denuded King Lear roaming tragically on windswept moors. Now he says to keep people locked up for 42 days without charge would have been unjust. Too late baby, it's too late.

For me the best fringe meeting of the conferences was on the Middle East, organised by the New Statesman. Ed Platt, expert on Hebron, put forward a lucid case for a one-state solution, suggesting that the struggle could then be for universal civil and human rights and total equality within a shared secular state. I have been fixated on a two-state future. Now I think that may be a mistake. I love going to the conferences not for the big, stage-managed speeches, nor to share the endless gossip, but for the intelligent discussions at small, intense events.

And the fun. Individuals loosen up – and how. Several lurched up to me to say they would not buy Blair's book. These were willing acolytes once. Bet you, if Blair had appeared, their genuflecting knees would have buckled fast. Booze, tensions, and pheromones mixed with stale air gets all sorts going, though only one lewd invitation this time. Last year I had three. Getting old you see. All around me are young, smart women. I wonder how many indecent proposals they collected? I was utterly humiliated when The Guardian refused absolutely to let me into their party even though I was with Rushanara Ali, the newly elected MP in Tower Hamlets. Right-wing pundits waltzed in and smirked.

Birmingham next, to the Cameron fest. I lunched with the Tory blogger Iain Dale and all around us were black and Asian supporters, a huge and significant development. Many are ex-Labour, following the scent of success. However, the old guard still doesn't quite know how to deal with the new demography.

A hearty chap asked me if I was from India. No. "Well you could be," he said, and then came a lecture on the economic success of India. "No welfare, you see, survival of the fittest, that's the secret. That's what you Indians are good at." I am not Indian. A couple praised us enterprising Ugandan Asians, then launched into anti-migrant invective. Several Tories were apoplectic about the child benefit cuts for higher earners and held neo-Eugenist views.

But everyone was impeccably polite and nice. The natural order has returned and nobody, certainly not an irritating leftie, can threaten that. I was so depressed by the magnanimity of victory I went back home early and started reading Carlyle's Past and Present, accounts of life for the poor in the mid-19th century, when destitute parents murdered their children to get burial money and the middle classes denounced their desperation. As they do now. That the past is soon to be our present is what I thought as the last conference closed.

:y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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