By Elle Driver
Conference. Every year, the drill’s the same. Through the gates you go after flashing the pass, scanning crowds for people you know, people you need to speak with. Trawl the programme for promising events. Day one is about reconnaissance.
Inside, the main hall promised a furious programme of activity, the motions that Momentum had allowed to reach the floor and the set-piece speeches the Leader’s Office had approved. The peripheral rooms and common areas littered with MPs with their aides, suited and booted and avoiding eye contact like it might give them venereal disease. Can’t blame them, a single chat could root them to the spot for the worst 20 minutes of their lives, cruelly unable to escape the complete oral history of what’s gone wrong in Burnley. But, apart from them, the vibe of the crowd was distinctly grassroots, loose and casual. Being the first day, the army of bouffanted lobbyists, both male and female, hadn’t descended yet. It was early, so no-one was drunk. In other words, nothing was actually happening yet. Attendees were just streaming in, tentatively, checking it all out, looking for friends or partners in crime.
The real action was at The World Transformed, the parallel conference around the corner from the main one where, even on the first day, there was a line around the block to get in. A gaggle of self-described activists, killing time as they queued, shared their glee at how busy the event was, especially given the New Statesman venue was deserted. This was to be a recurring theme that week. No one had a kind word for the poor NS or its writers, they were apparently a pack of establishment sell-outs or worse, corporate stooges. A bit of parsing of these characterisations would then lead to their editors being described as anti-Corbyn and, well, nothing else. Not a great first impression of the new members, the Corbyn faithful, of whom I’d heard so much but not yet seen in the wild, certainly not up close. But I was determined to keep an open mind.
There may have been unkind words about the media, but in truth there were no roaming gangs of awful Marxists looking for dissenters to slay with their sickles. Apart from individual conversations, confined to particular stands, normality reigned. As the sun came out, it even began to feel festive and relaxed. I started getting reports from colleagues about the fringe meetings. There was no generalised tension, no-one causing real trouble or even just asking awkward, challenging questions. Others reported the same and soon it was clear that the party was indeed far more united than the dreadful MSM (or the poor ostracised New Statesman lot) would have anyone believe. The relief was beginning to feel palpable. But early days still.
Unusually for a conference attendee, I would have the honour of meeting Corbyn himself, more by accident than design. What a lovely man! You’d have to be some kind of Blairite gorilla to not instinctively like him, with his crumpled, vulnerable smile, the kindly eyes. In an instant the adoration didn’t seem or feel so bizarre. If you came upon this man thinking he shared your political views it would be impossible not to follow him, maybe even not to venerate him. Then suddenly I was pulled from his personal orbit by one of the team of advisers around him. Or perhaps it was security, it was impossible to tell them apart. It was a rude interruption of my momentary thought bubble. ‘Mustn’t disturb Jeremy’, someone later quipped to me, ‘he’s the only thing keeping Labour from going Full Metal Jacket. They can’t be rocking any boats.’
In the fringes this message became clearer with each passing meeting. Questions weren’t allowed in the ones with contentious topics. ‘No Q&A’ became a common opening disclaimer for the chairs, and if they demurred a party aide would pipe up from the panel or the audience and remind all concerned: No Questions, No Exceptions. Insiders even apologised to me for the lack of access to anyone who held any decision-making powers and, sotto voce, they admitted the joking was all too serious. Jeremy can’t be anywhere near anything controversial right now. No one must be made unhappy. The cliff edge was all too near, the enemies poised at the gates, there was no way policies could be considered carefully right now. Just need to make it into Number 10: then we’ll talk.
Many of the stereotypes bandied around about Corbyn supporters were revealed as just that, stereotypes. The place wasn’t teeming with North London avocado-worshipping privilege, there were plenty of attendees who struggled to find the change to pay for the overpriced coffees in the seafront cafes. I chatted to as many different and disparate attendees as I could, and they were all unfailingly polite. Corbyn had seemed such a nice man, maybe we sceptics had it all wrong, something positive really was happening, why piss on an idealist’s chips?
New members everywhere, new faces. They didn’t really supply new energy, since they were timid, unsure of how it was all meant to work, excited but worried they’d do it wrong. Understandable. No one forgets their First Time. But it was still good to see them there, and to feel reassured that in fact the party was still functioning as it always had before, that reports of its takeover by hard left men in fedoras were looking greatly overstated.
My policy area, being controversial and difficult, meant, as usual, no-one really wanted to speak with me, but felt obliged to. Getting to see MPs away from the cameras is a similar experience to seeing celebrities in private settings. They may not play characters but many have public personas that slip away the second the door to the ante room shuts. I’m always grateful for the ones who prove to be no different behind the scenes, even more so if they’re polite rather than contemptuous. And if they actually stop, take time to listen, ask questions, understand, hey ho, that’s pay dirt. Few and far between, but not forgotten, and often the ones I least expected.
The new intake proved no different. Some appeared to feel it was their duty to take advantage of an opportunity to learn about an issue. Others didn’t even bother to conceal their irritation and wouldn’t so much as give a thanks-but-no-thanks. Again, this was a kind of relief to me, that there was no difference, that the big new names were behaved the same as the big old names. The game was the same, I’d no need to approach it differently. Be polite, charming even, if possible, smile, be respectful of their positions. That’s all. Keep at it, plug away. Some will listen, some won’t. Take the wins, forget the brush-offs. There will be arseholes everywhere. And so far none of the male MPs try it on like half the Tories do. Result!
More nice people to meet out on the pavement, more introductions. Contacts meet new contacts, and if you have balls, you introduce yourself to anyone and everyone. Us old hands were increasingly outnumbered as the week wore on. The average age tumbled so low I started to wonder if everyone who was there shouldn’t be at home, studying on a school night. Someone introduced me to a young guy who was very small, slight, quiet, and looked permanently uncomfortable. The type you couldn’t remember from school no matter how hard you tried or scanned those old photos. He proved to be no more impressive in speech than demeanor. Matt Zarb-Something, someone said. Oh! Oh? A name I knew, but alas not from where.
Andy Burnham, and his aide Kevin, ever the true gents. John McDonnell, never interested, but never impolite. Chuka Umunna, funny and decent and sincere. Dan Jarvis, aloof and cold and annoyed. Lisa Nandy, trying hard to get it, but always in a rush. Dennis Skinner with his lovely wife Lois, not having any of it, any of this conference shit, but loudly agreeing with me on my issue. John Prescott, warm and real but uncompromising and will turn on a sixpence if you cross him, loudly telling me to go before the wife finds out he talks to me. Kate Osamor wanting nothing to do with me. Diane Abbott too wary of strangers in her midst to really try, and for that I can’t blame her. Yvette Cooper fair and patient, giving nothing away, nothing. Then the media types – columnists and TV personalities worse than any of the MPs, with egos the size of the new British Airways attraction. Phil Collins from The Times so far up his own arse he’ll never need an endoscopy. But John McTernan the sweetest political killer I’ve ever known. A huge tender heart, once he lets you anywhere near it. Alistair Campbell weirdly vulnerable and nervous, fragile even. Stop that, I chide myself, can’t like him, not HIM…
None are the public caricatures they labour under, all are trying their best to balance personal ambition, insecurities, and doing the right thing. No, that’s not right, not all. Some want to further their careers and the rest is secondary. New intake and old alike. But it takes time, opportunities to test them, challenges to put to them, to find out who’s who. Who’s real and who’s just talking the talk. Over and over I’m surprised, caught out. Nothing works as a reliable shorthand or signal. I can never know until they’re in front of me, allowing a real conversation, give and take, examination.
My feet hurt, my back aches, it’s near the end, I’ve been walking or standing for 5 days straight, no lunches, just grabbed coffees and snacks until evenings. The football scarves have come out, with Corbyn’s name, the students have grown more comfortable, they’re getting the hang of the fact that there’s nothing to get a hang of, it’s a party conference. On the pavement someone makes another introduction, to yet another incredibly awkward young man named Sam, but this one’s not diminutive, he’s huge and that’s with me wearing heels. Towering over me, reminding me of one those trees in Lord of the Rings or is it Harry Potter? I’m told he’s a journalist but there’s only a mumble to be had by way of greeting. He manages a smile even if no eye contact. The young lurching lummox lumbered off before I get to find out which paper he writes for. ‘Dunno’, says my colleague. ‘Last name’s Kriss I think?’
Watching him go I recall the various meetings I’ve had; I can no longer suppress the nagging thought that I’ve been bumping into real-life Jim Levensteins all week. Then I realise I can’t afford to think that as it might make me Stifler’s Mom.
Corbyn’s entrance into the venue to make his speech is carefully choreographed to look like there’s a spontaneous burst of crowd support around him. I watch him and his team stride out from the back of the Odeon cinema, around the corner to where key supporters have been gathered but now are genuinely delighted. It looks and feels great, they’ve done it well. They’re getting much better at this, his team. I’m happy for him. Nice man.
Conference is over. I had hits and misses. The place had a slightly different look, a different crowd. But it was no different to the year before, or the year before, or the year before, or the year before. Stage managed to the nth degree, fewer opportunities for debate or questioning in separate meetings, but a bit more on the floor perhaps. The biggest issue of all, Brexit, blocked completely from open discussion. Armies of press officers swarming around to stop any controversy in its tracks. Corporate sponsors in the exhibition hall and of the fringes. Everything tightly controlled. MPs clasping their lines-to-take briefing sheets if you catch them unawares, the rest of the time, the scripts are hidden away, thrust into advisers’ pockets. Impressively coordinated. Nothing awkward, little discomfort.
The young members will come back, I hope, and, like me, over the years they will see that leaders come and go but the machinery never changes. It’s politics as it always is. There’s nothing new here.