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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.