What do the Labour Party conference, Glastonbury and sex have in common?

They’re good to watch on TV but it’s better to be there.

Conference has a special atmosphere, even in the difficult times. The superficial thrill of seeing national politicians and TV pundits wandering around the streets adds to it. The pleasure of feeling part of something relevant and important is deeply satisfying. As is being able to drink lots of free booze.

One of my guilty pleasures is observing the different types of people you get at Conference. Here are just a few…

Call of the mild

Who’s that pretending to take a call while wandering into shot? The political equivalent of the blokes on Booze Britain who can’t walk past a camera without being lairy, these individuals try to be more subtle. They’ll drift into view with their phone firmly stuck to their ear but their eyes give it away. They’re looking right at the camera. See if you can spot a mate doing it. Every year I wish someone would shout “oi oiii” at Andrew Neill. Every year I’m disappointed. Please, if you’re going, do it for all of us.

Out of office

Former leaders and ministers can breeze about at a slower and more relaxed pace than they used to. They look happier and less tired. Well, most of them do. Others feel awkward about being there and wear the embarrassed expression of someone who’s discovered their flies have been down all afternoon.

A load of stunts

In any other week of the year trying to grab a politician’s attention with an inflatable sperm would seem like madness. Not here. It appears to be the rule that each member of staff on an exhibition stand has to have ridiculous gimmick. What’s even more amazing is that politicians will flock to these bizarre photo opportunities like looters to JD Sports. “You’re campaigning against Sunday trading so you want me to put a rat on my head? Sure.”

Drink Tank

“Hi, I’m Lawrence Howitt from BS Public Affairs, we’re hosting a thought event about citizen engagement via online packages that click through to a consultation matrix, would you like to come along?”

“Will there be free booze?”


“I’m there”.

Suffer these tieless types for they will feed and refresh you.

Deja Who?

“Yes, we’ve met before” they say after you introduce yourself. If you have met them before you’re always impressed that a shadow cabinet minister has remembered you. If you haven’t met them before, you’re left questioning your sanity. For years I thought there must have been something particularly memorable about me as the great and the good always seemed to know who I was. It was upon meeting George Osborne that my world changed. “Yes, we’ve met before” he said. It was impossible so the words rang around my head. “Why would he say that if we hadn’t?” I thought. Then it hit me. They all do it. “Son of a…”

Glare in the community

Characterised by their rigid posture and thousand-yard stare, this particular breed of political animal is deeply insecure. They want you to think “hey look at that guy swanning around, I bet he’s dead powerful and charismatic”. What you’ll really think is “what a tool”. It’s not that these individuals are bad, it’s just status is the only thing that validates their existence. Which makes for dreadful conversation. Listen out for their trademark inflection when they utter dull phrases such as “we need to work on messaging”.

The protest with the mostest

“You what mate? Chewing gum is made out of human waste and old trainers? No I won’t ‘like’ your Facebook group”. Avoid placard wavers at all costs. No good ever comes from talking to them. Have you ever heard someone say “you know what, I’m really glad I spoke to that woman over there covered in lamb’s blood and sawdust, she really opened my eyes about education policy”?

Of course there are plenty of normal people who go to conference, but they’re no fun to spot.

Ed Miliband and Ed Balls at the party conference. Photograph: Getty Images


Matt Forde is a stand-up comedian and talkSPORT presenter. He also writes for 8 Out Of 10 Cats, Stand Up For The Week and Russell Howard’s Good News. He recently performed his critically-acclaimed show ‘Eyes to the right, nose to the left’ at the Edinburgh Festival. He used to work for the Labour Party.

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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide