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27 September 2011

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

By Steve Baxter

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.

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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.