Now what? - Lauren Booth meets Saddam in Bournemouth, but finds no WMDs

Every year, the Labour conference has more fat cats and fewer delegates

The Labour Party conference is clearly split into haves and have-nots. There are those on the podium and in the big hotels who have lots of money and power - and delegates who have neither. What could be a week of debates on policy is reduced to an amusing, ultimately pointless series of yah-boo playground showdowns.

It starts as soon as you enter the conference centre. Do you wear the corporate-sponsored neck chain like a good girl or boy, or do you show your radical leanings by marching straight up to the Unison stand to get it snipped and the ribbon replaced with theirs? This year theirs read: "Public service/private profit. Which side are you on?"

"We can't replace your ribbon this year, Lauren," a union representative told me. "You have to do that yourself. They've banned us from having scissors." Control freakery? What control freakery?

As for the leader's speech, I have pledged not to watch it inside the hall any more. It's just too easy to get swept away by the sheer technical brilliance of the stage management and the star qualities of the PM. I am so emotionally wet that I cry at adverts for Wrigley's or Pepsi, so how can I coolly judge a good speech?

As usual, Blair's performance was Bambi and Little House on the Prairie rolled into one. The eight-minute ovation was guaranteed. Around my area of the hall, things were a little less Oscar's night. At least 25 delegates not only stayed seated, they angrily jabbed their thumbs down during the applause. Still, I came bouncing out of the hall, chuckling: "Well, that stuck it to Gordon's team." It was only several hours later, when the cold seafront air hit me, that I could shake off the stardust and wonder again about the mess in Iraq, the Hutton inquiry, foundation hospitals, pensions . . .

To work out who has most influence over party policy, you just need a calculator. This year's gala dinner was the biggest ever. Previously, the dinners seated roughly 500 celebrities and mates of Mandy. This year, the event team sold 680 tickets at £475 per head, a net contribution to the party coffers of around a quarter of a million pounds. Meanwhile, delegate seating in the conference hall was reduced for the first time since 1997, from about 3,500 people to fewer than 2,000. Have a long think about that ratio of delegates to fat cats.

Conspiracy theorists may enjoy this: police singled out Mark Seddon, arguably the only lefty remaining on the party's National Executive Committee, for special attention. Having fallen into bed around 4am, Seddon was awoken a couple of hours later by police officers bashing on his room door to tell him that his car was a security risk. And why was it almost blown up in a controlled explosion? Because a computer error had mismatched its number plate with police records. "I know my car's a danger," he told the police. "I drive the old heap."

Meanwhile, Saddam Hussein (aka the comedian Jeff Mirza) wandered among late-night boozers at the Highcliffe Hotel in full army fatigues and moustache, shouting: "George Galloway, my friend. Is it you?" A crowd quickly surrounded him, patting him on the back, wanting to shake his hand. A scuffle broke out when a group of students tried to take off his beret.

"Why you attack me? Is it because I is Iraqi?" asked Saddam, looking hurt. "Sorry, mate," they said. "We were just looking for weapons of mass destruction." An hour earlier, Geoff Hoon walked through the same lobby, surrounded only by the embarrassed silence that wafts in his wake like a bad smell.

Delegates found one final way to make their feelings known. And they used the BBC to do it. Auntie's "Good Read" contest (to find the party's favourite book) was won by The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, a novel about the evils of capitalism and the benefits of socialism.

This article first appeared in the 13 October 2003 issue of the New Statesman, The awakening of liberal England