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?”

“Yes”

“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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Forget sniffer dogs. To stop drug abuse in prison, fight the real enemy – boredom

Since I left prison in 2011, the system has had £900m sucked out of it. No wonder officers are struggling to control drug use.

It’s rare to go a day in prison without someone offering you drugs. When I was sentenced to 16 months in 2011, I was shocked by the sheer variety on offer. It wasn’t just cannabis, heroin, and prescription pills. If you wanted something special, you could get that too: ecstasy for an in-cell rave, cocaine for the boxing, and, in one case, LSD for someone who presumably wanted to turn the waking nightmare of incarceration up to eleven.

Those were sober times, compared to how things are today. New synthetic drugs – powerful, undetectable, and cheap – have since flooded the market. As the Ministry of Justice itself admitted in its recent White Paper, they’ve lost control: “The motivation and ability of prisoners and organised crime groups to use and traffic illegal drugs has outstripped our ability to prevent this trade.”

The upshot is that, rather than emerging from prison with a useful new trade or skill, inmates are simply picking up new drug habits. According to a report released on 8 December by drug policy experts Volteface, on average 8 per cent of people who did not have a previous drug problem come out of prison with one. In some of the worst institutions, the figure is as high as 16 per cent.

Why are people with no history of drug abuse being driven to it in prison?

There’s the jailbreak factor, of course. All prisoners dream of escape, and drugs are the easiest way out. But, according the report, the most common reason given by inmates is simply boredom.

Life when I was inside was relatively benign. On most days, for instance, there were enough members of staff on duty to let inmates out of their cells to shower, use a telephone, post a letter, or clean their clothes. Sometimes an emergency would mean that there might not be enough hands on deck to escort people off the wing to education, worship, drug therapy, healthcare, family visits, work, or other purposeful activities; but those occasions were mercifully rare.

Since then, the system has had £900m sucked out of it, and the number of operational staff has been reduced by 7,000. All such a skeleton crew can do is rush from one situation to the next. An assault or a suicide in one part of the prison (which have increased by 64 per cent and 75 per cent respectively since 2012) often results in the rest being locked down. The 2,100 new officers the MoJ has promised to recruit don’t come anywhere close to making up the shortfall. Purposeful activity – the cornerstone of effective rehabilitation – has suffered. Inmates are being forced to make their own fun.

Enter ‘synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists’, or SCRAs, often more simply referred to by brand names such as ‘Spice’ or ‘Black Mamba’. Over 200 of them are available on the international market and they are, today, the most popular drugs in British prisons. A third of inmates admitted to having used ‘Spice’ within the last month, according to a recent survey conducted by User Voice, and the true figure is probably even higher.

As one serving prisoner recently told me: "It's the perfect drug. You can smoke it right under the governor's nose and they won't be able to tell. Not even the dogs can sniff it out."

The combination of extreme boredom and experimental drugs has given birth to scenes both brutal and bizarre. Mobile phone footage recently emerged from Forest Bank prison showing naked, muzzled prisoners – apparently under the influence of such drugs – being made to take part in human dog fights. At the same establishment, another naked prisoner introduces himself to the camera as an ‘Islamic Turkey Vulture’ before squatting over another inmate and excreting ‘golden eggs’, believed to be packets of drugs, into his mouth. It sounds more like a scene from Salò than the prison culture I recall.

The solution to this diabolical situation might seem obvious: but not to Justice Secretary Liz Truss. Her answers are more prison time (up to ten years) for visitors caught smuggling ‘spice’, and new technology to detect the use of these drugs, which will inevitably fail to keep up with the constantly changing experimental drugs market. Earlier this week, she even suggested that drug-delivery drones could be deterred using barking dogs.

Trying to solve prison problems with more prison seems the very definition of madness. Indeed, according to the Howard League for Penal Reform, over the last six years, inmates have received over a million days of extra punishment for breaking prison rules – which includes drug use – with no obvious positive effects.

Extra security measures – the training of ‘spice dogs’, for example – are also doomed to fail. After all, it’s not like prison drug dealers are hard to sniff out. They have the best trainers, the newest tracksuits, their cells are Aladdin’s Caves of contraband - and yet they rarely seem to get caught. Why? The image of a prison officer at HMP Wayland politely informing our wing dealer that his cell was scheduled for a search later that day comes to mind. Unless the huge demand for drugs in prison is dealt with, more security will only result in more corruption.

It might be a bitter pill for a Tory minister to swallow but it’s time to pay attention to prisoners’ needs. If the prodigious quantities of dangerous experimental drugs they are consuming are anything to go by, it’s stimulation they really crave. As diverting as extra drug tests, cell searches, and the sight of prison dogs trying to woof drones out of the sky might momentarily be, it’s not going to be enough.

That’s not to say that prisons should become funfairs, or the dreaded holiday camps of tabloid fantasy, but at the very last they should be safe, stable environments that give inmates the opportunity to improve their lives. Achieving that will require a degree of bravery, imagination, and compassion possibly beyond the reach of this government. But, for now, we live in hope. The prisoners, in dope.