Why do we still watch party conferences in the age of paid TV?

In these carefully stage-managed days, voices of dissent are removed from anywhere near a television

Party conferences aren't what they once were. I say this from the point of view of someone who's never been to one.

Well, that's not completely true. I was meant to attend a Labour youth conference in Brighton back in the 1990s, but, due to an unfortunate collision of circumstances, I never made it into the conference hall and spent most of my time vomiting in a hotel room. A lucky escape, you might quip. But there it is. That's where my political career began and ended.

Since that's as close as I've been in the flesh, I've only ever witnessed these rather odd events on television, and not really through choice. By all means start up the crackly 78 of Dvorak's Largo to accompany this, but I remember a time when they were all there was to watch. It was Pages from Ceefax versus nothing on ITV, versus some sweaty-pated straggle-haired bletherer mewling about how he was going to "move". "Move where?" you grumbled at the television. But there was no answer.

Now, we have channels. We have choice. No longer are the sickly children of Britain forced to sit at home and endure endless empty hours of
wondering why all those beige-looking elderly people are applauding such anodyne speeches as if it's England winning the World Cup combined with a free mug of Ovaltine -- which is all to the good for the lucky blighters of today in so many ways, of course, but I can't help thinking that a certain rite of passage has disappeared.

Yes. As a young lad, frequently stuck at home full of snot or some horrible disease that wouldn't shift, I'd have to shiver under a blanket and try to understand what was going on at these rather tired events held in musty seaside resorts. Why did they have traffic lights in front of them? Would a trapdoor open when it went red? Who was this Michael Heseltine? Why did he have such extravagant eyebrows? Why was everyone laughing, when he wasn't saying anything funny?

This was the bleakest, most awful stage show in the world, a pantomime with jokes by Samuel Beckett, a cavalcade of dullards saying nothing of
any interest, and being cheered to the rafters. But at least you could rely on Labour for laughs: Kinnock toppling into the sea like a great big tit in a trance, then trying and failing to make a big joke out of it, for example. "Militant" folk popping up and shouting while someone else was trying to speak. Meet The Challenge, Make The Change. The proud use of "comrades". Ah, yes. Dozy old Labour, sleepwalking into another landslide defeat. Well, perhaps the defeats are returning, if nothing else.

Try as I might yesterday morning, I couldn't avoid Ed Balls -- on the radio, on breakfast TV, clinging onto a banister on Daybreak as if a strong
gust of wind might carry him away like Mary Poppins at any moment. He was everywhere. "This is what I'm going to say later," was the essence
of it. "Then why not say it later and do us all a favour," many sleep-deprived folk probably wondered on a Monday morning.

Though we all know why. It's not about the conference anymore. No-one's watching that, apart from die-hard political types, most of whom, as we
know, have already made their minds up. It's all about the news, and trying to persuade ordinary folk like you and I in between tales of disaster and tragedy from around the world.

In these carefully stage-managed days, Walter Wolfgang notwithstanding, voices of dissent are carefully removed from anywhere near a television
camera, and all you get is a very long-form version of tonight's soundbite. Often, the big three parties, no matter how catastrophic things actually are, attempt to portray an unflappable veneer a little like Sid James in Carry On Up The Khyber, and we, the punters are like Peter Butterworth, pondering the importance of strawberry mousse when the palace is collapsing around our ears.

Ah well. I suppose we should enjoy the small pleasures of the Labour offering while we can. Soon it'll be the triumphant Tories, roaring with
delight at every mention of the mess they inherited, the tough choices that need to be made, the hard road ahead, the broken society that needs
to be fixed... no-one will be watching that, either. But no-one needs to be. They're in power.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.