What really goes on at Labour party conference, by Dan Hodges

At the opening of North by North West, Cary Grant’s character, Roger Thornhill, is abducted from his friends and family, transported to a remote location, and persecuted by his captors. Confused and disoriented, they pour alcohol down his throat, question and abuse him, and demand answers about his work with government. Finally, his ordeal complete, he is thrown out onto the road, left to negotiate his own hazardous route back to safety  and sanity.

Roger Thornhill would have felt right at home at Labour conference. As a party we proclaim a passionate commitment to reform of the Parliamentary process. The insane working hours. The drinking culture. A building unfit for purpose. Yet, for some reason, when it comes to internal policymaking we think the best solution is to entomb the entire Labour movement for a week in a cramped, sweaty, municipal arena, deny them food and sleep, ply them with booze, then refuse to let them out until they’ve discovered the new Jerusalem.

Soon after our victory in 1997, I asked a Downing Street aide whether they planned to follow through on Tony Blair’s stated desire to downsize conference, or even make it a biennial event. “Daren’t”, came the reply. “Party wouldn’t stand for it”. Abolish Clause four. Invade Iraq. Privatise public services. No  problem. Touch the free spread at agents’ night and you’re history.

I still remember my first conference as a Parliamentary researcher. There were a number of golden rules to be followed. Never allow yourself to be seen in anything other than a dark suit, white shirt (blue in extremis) and red tie. Always carry a bundle of papers. Content irrelevant. Never, ever, move at a normal pace. Walk with false urgency. Better yet, attempt a slow trot. Mobile at all times, pressed to right ear. You won’t get a signal, but it doesn’t matter. You are in a major British conference venue. No one else will have a signal either.

They say that the heat of combat opens a window into a man’s soul. So does the heat of the Winter Gardens. You learn a lot about someone’s character from the way they conduct themselves at conference. In 1992, I was attending for the first time after recovering from a serious accident. I was watching one of the debates when I felt an arm on my shoulder, and a voice said, “How you doing kid?’. It was Neil Kinnock. A few years later, Philip Gould nearly pushed me down a flight of stairs as he tried to force his way into a reception, shouting, “I’m Philip Gould, I don’t need an invite”. I use those examples randomly. They have no wider political significance.

When you’re a researcher at conference, you are a sort of political ‘Inbetweener’. You have a mild form of status, but you never get invited to the cool parties. In fact, gate-crashing receptions became my main pre-occupation: “I need to get an urgent message to…insert name of MP”. The Conference equivalent of “I’m with John”. It was actually quite useful for evaluating someone’s political capital.

“Ian McKenzie just got into the Statesman”.

“Statesman? Really?”.

”Yeah, Anne Taylor must be a cert for Shadow Cabinet”.

When I started working for the GMB my standing increased a notch. You actually have something to do when you’re working for a union. Deals are cut. Votes traded. Composites…I never really did understand what we did with composites.

The downside was, well, you had to do something. Working for John Edmonds, who didn’t exactly go out of his way to ingratiate himself with the party leadership, always meant things were buzzing.

“Er…John, I just had a call from the Times. They say you punched Gordon Brown”.

“What? That’s ridiculous”

“Um…maybe grabbed him by the collar?”

“Don’t be silly. We had  a few words over pensions. Some threats. A whiff of Ermine. Usual stuff”.

“Oh. Well, that’s all right then”.

Working for a back-bencher, your time at conference is pretty much your own. Working for a union meant your time belonged to Jon Cruddas.

In the days before he become MP for Dagenham, Cruddas was the leadership’s union fixer; chief curator of the historic ‘link’.

“Dan, it’s Cruddas. What are you guys doing”?

“What…er…I’m in bed…With my wife….Jon, it’s half two in the morning”.

“Sorry. But what are you guys doing”?

“Me and my wife”?

“Not you and your wife. The union. On the motion”.

“…Um…not sure. I thought all that was fixed”?

“Nah, someone screwed things up. Can you find out”?


“Yeah. It’s only half two”.

It’s a week that takes it’s toll on the toughest  political operators. Judith Church’s former researcher, Atul Hatwal, a comrade accustomed to putting in the hard conference yards, once rushed up to me, ashen faced and shaking.

“I’ve just seen Keyser Soze”!


“Keyser Soze! The Usual Suspects. The Devil”.


“Walking by the All Party Parliamentary Water Group reception”!

It turned out Kevin Spacey was in town. But Blackpool can do that to  a man.

Conference is also the great leveller. I once saw Nick Raynsford stumble while stepping onto a dias to launch his campaign for mayor of London. He staggered, fell off the other side, ran head first into a dividing panel, and collapsed. Then he got up, and without batting an eyelid, commenced his speech – “The Mayoralty – Let’s Get Serious”.

And, despite itself, conference can be serious. It’s a week when we try to seal the deal with the electorate. Demonstrate we have the values, visions and policies to guide our nation through turbulent times. Or, alternatively, that we’ve got a leader who can do twenty consecutive headers with Kevin Keegan.

I walked into the Grand Hotel after that famous photo-call to see Mike Elrick, John Smith’s former press officer, and the late Ian Hepplewhite, then PLP press officer, toasting their successful stunt.

“How many did he manage”.

“Twenty nine”.

“Twenty nine? Tories are toast”.

It also has its moments of quality drama. For me, the pinnacle was John Prescott’s speech during the 1993 conference debate on OMOV. Last week, as I posted off both my votes for party leader, it all came back.

“What a speech!”.

“Yeah, what a speech! Classic!”.

“What did he actually say?”.

“Fuck knows. Who cares? What a speech!”.

”Yeah! Er…he did tell everyone to vote ‘Yes’, didn’t he” ?

Conference is portrayed as Labour’s showcase. Our window to the world. That’s not actually true. The real purpose of conference is to enable us to gauge just how far we are along the rocky road to power. Forget the polls and the focus groups. Stand in the bar at midnight on the last evening and you’ll get a pretty good idea of whether you’re looking at the next government.

Of all my personal conference memories, the most vivid is a simple one. It’s of Pat McFadden sitting in t-shirt and jeans, beer in hand, at the end of conference in 1994 or ’95. He’d just ensured that the leadership had gone the whole session without losing a motion; the first time in decades. He looked knackered, but content. That was the instant I knew we we’re going to do it.

“Look at Pat. We’re going to win, aren’t we”.

“Yeah, must be. He’s not wearing his suit. Pat doesn’t get into the bath without his tie on”.

So back we come. Ostensibly to pass resolutions and formulate policy. But in truth because we seek reassurance. That there are others on the journey with us. Whether it leads to the backwaters of opposition, or the new Jerusalem. Conference recalibrates us. We are the tribe. Whatever our destination, at least we are not marching alone.

Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut

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6 Responses to “What really goes on at Labour party conference, by Dan Hodges”

  1. Amanda Ramsay says:

    so funny, esp: Always carry a bundle of papers. Content irrelevant. Never, ever, move at a normal pace. Walk with false urgency. Better yet, attempt a slow trot. Mobile at all times, pressed to right ear. You won’t get a signal, but it doesn’t matter.

  2. Ian McKenzie says:

    Dan, fantastic piece. Hilarious. I’m sending the link to friends. Only one slight gripe. I’m deeply honoured to get a name check but I wouldn’t have been seen dead in the Statesman.

  3. Dan Hodges says:


    Apologies for the smear.

    I will retract immediately.

    Will you be in Manchester/


  4. Ed Owen says:

    Great piece, Dan! See you in Manc

  5. Steve Hardwick says:


    Ah, happy days! Bar to breakfast…only going to receptions serving champagne…the same group of six or seven of us going to everything together. Innocent times!

    You failed to mention that it is also where you met your wife! Your marital happiness all flows from a Saturday night Italian in Bournemouth.

    So Labour Conference is a place where dreams are born. Couldn’t happen at Tories.


  6. Bryn Davies says:

    … but you should have included a plot spoiler warning.

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