Now what? - Lauren Booth fights for a front-row seat

At Labour Party conferences, delegates know that you are where you sit

Irritability set the tone for the train journey to "bloody" Blackpool this year. Despite the fact that junior ministers and journalists were being given preferential treatment by Virgin Trains, the atmosphere before we reached the Midlands was not good. Getting up before 7am on a Sunday (unless for a TV appearance) is not what we "do".

However, after a complimentary champagne breakfast and a look through the complimentary Sunday newspapers, we all perked up - a lot. Andrew Rawnsley and Peter "Sanctimonious S**t" Oborne guffawed between carriages and by the time we passed Manchester, everyone was armed with a favourite Edwina and John joke.

Then the weather took us all by surprise by being warmer than the south of France.

Within 15 minutes of entering the Winter Gardens, I could see that the traditional "them" and "us" war games were already well under way. If you're one of "them" (a new Labourite), you wear your security pass on a chain advertising the conference sponsor. This year, it was a political website.

If, however, you're one of "us" (pro the firefighters' strike, anti-Bush's war), then a Unison rep was on hand to cut the advert from your neck and replace it with a strap asking: "Which side are you on? Public Services/Private Finance?"

As usual, the Labour spin machine worked tirelessly to perfect the setting in which its big stars performed. The background lighting for the stage was empirical purple. This year, there was also an exciting new structural design for speakers to negotiate - what Ian McCartney MP described to appreciative delegates as a "catwalk for some" and a "gangplank" for others. And, just like catwalks from Paris to Milan, not just anyone can get a front-row seat. Only the wealthy, the well-connected or double Oscar winners need apply from now on.

On Monday, as Gordon Brown waited to give his big speech defending PFI, I spotted several NEC members arguing with stewards. Their traditional front-row seats had been mysteriously "reallocated" for the entire afternoon. They were sent to the back of the hall like naughty children. The message was loud and clear: if you can't smile nicely for the cameras, then you won't be in the picture at all.

Mark Seddon, Tribune editor and one of the NEC members ejected from his place, as an act of rebellion planted on an empty seat a plastic bag saying in bold letters: "NO WAR ON IRAQ". As Gordon Brown sashayed along the catwalk, cameras panned towards the bag. We held our breath. Suddenly, a party worker sprinted up the aisle and desperately hurled himself on to the seat, successfully covering the unwanted message from the media's gaze.

Unfortunately, all the manipulation in the world couldn't save cabinet ministers from the after-effects of a badly written speech. Gordon Brown worked like a horse to drag and pull unwilling applause from the conference crowd. It was tough and ugly to watch, but he managed it. Then out sauntered Paul Boateng and ruined the whole show by reading the telephone directory backwards.

No one could make sense of what he was saying. The Chancellor put a hand over his face. The audience started muttering. Then came the sound ministers dread. "Thud, thud, thud . . ." Half the hall began to slow-handclap.

A deliberately dull, stage-managed affair had become dangerously electrifying, and the vote went against the government. Boateng shuffled, head down, back along the gangplank.

On the way out, two elderly union reps nudged me and chuckled merrily: "Nice, nice. Just like the old days."