Pssst. . . like a Powergen leaflet?

Why do businesses take stalls at the Labour conference? John O'Farrell suspects a m

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman’s Morning Call email.

Wherever political parties come together, businesses will flock to set out their stall, as if in some enormous corporate car-boot sale. It has always been this way. A party conference without an exhibition centre would be like a leader's speech without a standing ovation - it is against the laws of science. If you look carefully at footage of the Nuremberg rallies you can see people wandering about at the back, browsing at the stand promoting time-share apartments in Stalingrad.

In the old days of Labour Party conferences, the stalls were more in keeping with Labour's lowly status in seemingly permanent exile from the corridors of power. You could traipse around and buy a packet of Nicaraguan coffee and a badge saying "Nuclear Power? No thanks!" in a choice of 37 different languages - and it sounded just as wet in all of them. But now we are business-friendly new Labour, and the wobbly trestle tables have given way to hi-tech presentations aimed to persuade us of the merits of internet banking or digital television. "Hello, have you thought of the opportunities for your business in switching to Intel-Wap-34ZS integrated software?" asks the keen young rep, handing out a leaflet to the bemused National Union of Mineworkers delegate. There are still a few spaces hired out to charities or pressure groups, but every year the stands representing persecuted minorities or endangered species are pushed further toward the brink of extinction by the huge, brash stalls of the multinationals.

Cynics cite the party's willingness to invite the capitalists into its parlour as further proof of Labour's abandonment of socialist principles; and most years there is a minor scandal when it is revealed that conference has played host to a stall run by an Iraqi arms dealer or a private health company selling internal organs stolen from Brazilian peasants. For some old Labour MPs, the exhibition area is like a red light district for weakening lefties. They walk around, trying to avert their eyes as stallholders call out: "Hello darlin', fancy getting into bed with big business?"

"No, no, I can't - I'm married to my socialist principles."

"Oh, go on, have some fun, just a quick bit of online share dealing, no one would have to know . . ." And the MP accepts the leaflet with all the furtiveness of a man collecting the grubby cards stuck up inside a telephone box.

The stallholders seem to believe that once they have handed you a leaflet, their mission is accomplished. As if people do not receive enough junk mail in the course of their everyday lives and would go out of their way to seek out even more.

"Hello, would you like a chance to read more about Powergen?" asks the young man, handing you a glossy piece of paper as you rush past. Well, this is too exciting an opportunity to miss.

"A chance to read more about Powergen, you say? Well I was halfway through the new Stephen King thriller, but I'll put that to one side now that I've got the chance to read more about Powergen!" Obviously, no one actually ever reads any of the bumph. The stallholders from British Nuclear Fuels ought to give out a leaflet saying: "Just to let you know that all our power stations are going to explode on Thursday" - just to see if anyone notices.

For delegates and journalists alike, the stalls are a place that you wander around when you are bored. The only problem is, they manage to leave you even more bored than when you sat in the hall listening to the speaker from Batley & Spen CLP advocating Composite 27 on Nagorno-Karabakh. But that is the whole purpose of the place. It's an elaborate ploy designed to keep the delegates in their seats for the entire week.

Yet there are so many other ways that Labour could use the exhibition halls to make money: install a temporary multiscreen cinema, organise a four-day beer festival, or turn the whole place into an amusement arcade. But there's a risk - these attractions could be too popular. We couldn't have Tony Blair speaking to an empty conference hall while all the delegates gather around the video-game screen of Alien Megadeath, trying to see if John Prescott can beat his all-time high score blasting away droids from the Planet Krall.

So Labour happily takes lots and lots of money from armies of capitalist businessmen, who in turn are happy to pay it because they know they are reaching members of the party that holds political power.

Somehow, it feels as if everything is the wrong way round: the people with access to those in power are lobbying the people without. So, next year, things are going to be a bit different: the Labour Party delegates will be the ones handing out the leaflets to all the businessmen. "Hello there," we'll say. "Erm, next time Tony invites you to Downing Street for a business breakfast, is there any chance you could remind him about implementing socialism?"

John O'Farrell's novel The Best a Man Can Get is published on 5 October. A four-part adaptation of his Things Can Only Get Better will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 from 25 September

This article appears in the 25 September 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Women: still firmly in their place