No political statements allowed on the conference floor

Red Pepper's press officer and on-the-spot oik Alex Nunns attended the Labour Party Conference in Brighton, rubbed shoulders with the Lennon and McCartney of global development, wrestled a party apparatchik for a stapler, yawned his way through ministerial speeches -and kept a diary

October 1, 2004 · 10 min read

Monday 27 September

The Labour Party Conference was debating renationalising the railways today. Unfortunately I wasn’t there to hear it. My train from Victoria to Brighton was cancelled.

By the time I got to the south coast Gordon Brown’s speech was long since over. It didn’t matter, though. I had signed up for a conference news text service that sent the latest happenings direct to my mobile phone. Through this wonder I was informed that ‘Brown promises prosperity and justice’. After spending £27 on an unjustifiably expensive train ticket, I would sooner have believed a pig’s promise to fly.

Finally arrived in Brighton, I attended a Catalyst fringe meeting. Robin Cook, commenting on Blair’s call for the end of the 1960s, said: ‘I liked the 1960s. I want to see the end of the 1980s.’

I found myself in the Grand Hotel, the main conference site in Brighton, among a group of people looking for the ‘Equality Disco’, which I am sure is a contradiction in terms. We didn’t find it, but instead ended up in a champagne reception held by The Times. I have no compunction about drinking from Rupert Murdoch’s champagne glass, but I did feel a bit out of place standing between the current and former editors of The Sun, Rebekah Wade and David Yelland respectively. We did the only honourable thing under the circumstances: stole a bottle of booze and left.

Tuesday 28 September

The entire morning was spent trying to produce a Red Pepper press release about the pro-fox-hunting protest that was going on outside. The purpose of the Labour Party’s press office is presumably to provide assistance to media organisations. But they don’t. An internet connection for a laptop costs £150 plus calls. Eventually I had to beg a Hilton Hotel receptionist to download and print the press release. (Before you get the wrong idea, I was not staying in the Hilton. In true Red Pepper fashion, I was in a youth hostel dormitory.)

All I needed now was a stapler. Red Pepper’s deputy editor Natasha Grzincic and I went to the press office. ‘Could we please borrow a stapler?’ The Labour Party’s press man looked at us with a certain suspicion. ‘I’ll check,’ he said. When he reappeared it transpired that a higher authority had granted us use of the precious device, provided the party’s man actually did the stapling. We asked: ‘Can’t you give us the stapler and we’ll do it? We just need 50 staples.’

‘I can’t let this stapler out of my sight,’ spoke the voice of the party machine.

‘OK, we’ll staple the stuff right here then.’

‘What are you going to staple?’ he asked.

At this point we produced our press releases, proudly sporting the Red Pepper letterhead. He took one look. ‘I can’t let you do this.’

It was a clever tactic. By the time we had tracked down an alternative stapler Blair’s speech was about to begin and the fox-hunting demo was old news.

Watching ‘The Leader’s Speech’, as it is Stalinistically called, was an eerie experience. Loud music whipped up the audience as if it were a rock concert. The delegates rose a long while before Blair appeared and started a kind of regimented, fascistic clapping in time to Fat Boy Slim’s ‘Right Here, Right Now’. Beholding this artificial frenzy, I couldn’t help wondering why these party members felt obliged to treat this man as a deity, to pander to His ego and fawn in anticipation of His presence. After all, Blair rarely misses an opportunity to display his contempt for them.

The speech was dull. Blair’s non-apology for the war (‘I can apologise for information that might have been wrong, but I can’t apologise for getting rid of Saddam’) was gutless as well as dishonest – Blair made clear at the time that should Saddam disarm he could stay in power. The hecklers provided the only highlights. After one heckle Blair retorted: ‘That’s fine, sir, you can make your protest, just thank God we live in a democracy and you have that right.’ Meanwhile the man in question was being dragged from the hall with a hand over his mouth. The irony was lost on Tony.

Red Pepper’s editor Hilary Wainwright spoke at a Demos fringe meeting in the evening on the future of political parties. Ranged against her were three ministers – Tessa Jowell, Douglas Alexander and David Lammy. Now, I have a challenge for readers: listen to any of the New Labour women (Jowell, Cooper, Morris, Hewitt) and see if you can concentrate for more than 30 seconds. I can’t do it. I tried to listen to Tessa Jowell – honestly I did – but there is a particular speaking quality, deliberate I am sure, quite unique to female New Labourites, which ensures that nothing they say can be picked up and used against them, simply because no one is listening. It is, readers, ingenious.

The star of the show was the young Kierra Box from the student campaign group Hands Up For Peace. She said virtually nothing for an hour but then, without warning, she exploded. She attacked the chairman for treating her as the token young person and for not letting her speak; she attacked the politicians for saying they listen while ignoring her; and then in a wonderful rhetorical flourish she listed all the things she would have said if she had been given the chance. The best line was reserved for Lammy: ‘You asked why the workers and asylum seekers aren’t here – I’m glad they’re not here, because you don’t represent them.’ She then outlined her vision for the future of political engagement and wiped the floor with the three government ministers.

Afterwards Hilary, Natasha and I trooped off to Brighton beach where Hilary was due to go on BBC News 24. She was debating with a Fabian, who was over the moon because ‘this week ministers are really talking about equality’.

‘This is the Labour Party, for God’s sake,’ Hilary replied.

Another champagne reception at the Grand. I chatted to Robin Cook and told him that Hilary keeps raising the idea of Red Pepper endorsing him for party leader. He said that if she did his wife would sue.

Standing next to Gordon Brown and drinking free champagne in a room filled by the rich and powerful, I did wonder what the hell an oik like me was doing there. And then I wondered what the hell Labour Party members weren’t doing there. These receptions, you see, are not for them. It’s their conference, and they pay for the privilege of attending, but these parties are for the media and the corporates. They allow the heroic leaders of the workers’ political struggle to schmooze the heroic owners of the capitalist media. The last thing either group wants is for mere party members to lower the tone.

Wednesday 29 September

I have figured out how to do conference. The key is to choose the fringe meetings that have the best refreshments. At lunch I had a vegetarian buffet courtesy of the League Against Cruel Sports. In the evening I managed to eat two dinners – one at a New Statesman fringe and the other at an NUT reception.

In between I listened to U2 star Bono give a curious speech. He had a nice turn of phrase: ‘Forgive me if I appear nervous. I’m not used to speaking to crowds of less than 100,000 people.’ But when he called Blair and Brown the Lennon and McCartney of global development I puked. Served me right for stuffing my face at lunch.

Elsewhere a Pakistani member of War On Want had been stopped, stripped of his pass and interrogated.

I had another conference news text: ‘Blair: Iraq invasion was legal.’ They say that pigs recently completed their first trans-Atlantic flight.

The New Statesman fringe meeting was about humanitarian intervention. Clare Short spoke well, but Eric Joyce, the ‘Minister for Newsnight’ as John Kampfner called him, was beyond belief. He was bullish, ignorant, rude. He dismissed historical examples of America acting against the interests of humanitarianism, such as in Cambodia, thundering: ‘I’m not here to talk about ancient history. What matters is what America does now and in the future.’ I had to pull him up on that, so I said: ‘Eric Joyce’s negation of history is very convenient for his argument but it belies a permanent naivety which is a feature of New Labour. I want to ask Eric a specific question: does he really believe that the war on Iraq was a humanitarian intervention? Because if you’re going to lead a humanitarian intervention it usually helps if you tell people in advance.’ His answer: ‘Yes, it was.’

Afterwards Clare Short came straight up to me and told me that the term permanent naivety is absolutely right. ‘The trouble is they don’t read. They’ve got all this power, and they just learn the soundbites. They really haven’t got a clue what they’re talking about. Tony doesn’t read; none of them read. And worse, they make assertions that are just completely contrary to the facts.’

Thursday 30 September

It is impossible to find a copy of the Guardian at the Labour Party Conference. You can get the Independent, the Telegraph, even the Mail, but not the Guardian. Hilary was due to review the papers on the BBC’s Daily Politics at mid-day, so we spent the morning reading them. In the end the section was squeezed and Hilary was only on for three minutes.

The big story was the debate on Iraq. It had emerged that Jack Straw had pressurised a 19-year-old constituency delegate from Walthamstow, northeast London to scrap a composite motion calling for the withdrawal of troops. And behind the scenes the big four unions had done a deal not to embarrass the government by voting the wrong way.

Hilary bumped into Kevin Curran, General Secretary of the GMB, who insisted that the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions had urged the unions not to vote for withdrawal. He seemed shifty and uneasy about the whole thing.

My conference text service read: ‘Straw: UK troops not occupying Iraq.’ And I hear that pigs have just gone supersonic.

To the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy’s fringe and at last there were actual unionists and working class people there. Pete Willsman, in a hilarious speech, revealed that a delegate had been removed from the floor of the conference for refusing to join the standing ovation after the Leader’s speech. Instead he held up a small sign that read: ‘I’M SITTING DOWN FOR PEACE.’ It seems that Blair’s much vaunted right to protest didn’t stretch to this man. Others had been forbidden to enter the main hall because they were wearing anti-war T-shirts. ‘No political statements are allowed on the conference floor,’ a party official had told them in a moment of uncharacteristic honesty.

The train from Brighton to London was terminated half way because of a security threat at Victoria. It seems that, because of issues relating to Southern Trains’ ownership of the carriage, a diversion to another station was out of the question. Ministers had rejected conference’s vote to renationalise the railways at the start of the week. I wonder what all that palaver down in Brighton was for.

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