(or How to keep the boss sweet and manage the madness)
Those of you who are newcomers since the last conference season will undoubtedly benefit from this example of the wisdom of W4MP’s own Dean Trench. Those of you have been around longer will remember that this was Dean’s last offering before his sad demise earlier this year. W4MP Ed.
The new political term starts with a bang – or implosion, depending on which Party you belong to – with the Conference season. Over the period of about a month, local party members, councillors, MPs and, of course, their battle-hardened bag-carriers, decamp to mildew infested lodgings ten miles out of decaying seaside towns for a couple of days of debates with over-keen policy wonks, renewing old acquaintances, boozing late into the night, and generic curry.
For bag-carriers, however, the Conference period is more similar to a party hosted by your younger sister whilst your parents are away: you’re not quite sure whether you should spend the evening serving the drinks and directing people to the toilet, or have leave to instigate a couple of rounds of “spin the bottle” and drunkenly hit on her friends. This is because as Conference is a political event, you will have to cover the ferocious cost of attending yourself, but you try arguing with your MP that because you’re stumping up for the entire shebang you shouldn’t be required to be at his or her beck and call for the duration. Many have tried, none have prevailed.
To add to the horror: Conferences are crawling with Oxbridge educated hacks on an internship with daddy and desperate to make a splash, and tired and emotional Members of Parliament muttering disobliging comments about the leadership in their cups makes excellent copy for young Jocasta and Jeremy; you’ll have to organise the diary in even more challenging circumstances than usual; there’s always a chance that someone from your office or local party goes badly off-piste (note the pun, folks. Note the pun); and if you want to use a computer, you’ll have to queue for fourteen hours behind the two terminals the tight-wads at the Party have coughed up for communal use.
A nightmare, say you? Not at all, with Dean Trench’s handy guide to staying sane, your docile boss will be the envy of your friends and you will have the time to attend the very best parties and eye up the very finest political talent.
Read on to find out how.
Last year’s Guide covered the basics of Conference organisation and some of the more common pitfalls, but if you are reading this in your hotel room bleary eyed at 5am because your boss is sleeping in the bath and his snoring is keeping you awake, it’s probably too late to warn you about the dangers of “busking.”
Unpleasant as too much personal contact of this nature with your boss may sound, tracking down your MP as soon as you arrive is essential. This cannot be stressed strongly enough. Remember, it’s been recess for a good couple of months by this stage and the novelty of spending time with their spouse away from the fleshpots of Westminster will have begun to pall slightly. A seaside break with all their friends will have the charm of ascending from Purgatory to Paradise, and they are liable to get over-excited, make loads of diary commitments that they will forget about instantly, agree to address the Conference chamber on a subject they know nothing about and will consequently require you to spend the duration writing a their speech, or simply go to ground for four days in one of the less salubrious drinking establishments of the parish. For these reasons, early intervention is paramount.
Before you allow him or her to go off and play with their friends, ensure that you have agreed a time and a place to meet every morning and every evening to discuss the day’s priorities and handle any arising media or diary issues. In addition establish, if you haven’t already, who else is there from your local party. If your boss is going to be too busy to listen to the delegate’s extended thoughts on the composite motion from the Mid-Bedfordshire party, it will have to be you on hand to ensure that they are still feeling the love. If they feel sidelined or dismissed, this is likely to be remembered the next time your employer needs 10,000 constituency reports delivered by hand.
Keeping tabs on the junior staff and local party members or delegates
Hopefully, you can rest safe in the knowledge that your intern is going to spend the Conference engrossed in wonkfests organised by the very dullest of think-tanks and your local party members will be too enthralled by the debate in the main hall to even think of raising hell.
This rarely comes to pass.
Although there is really very little you can do to persuade the chair of your local association that it would be an error to make a speech denouncing a senior member of the party as the worst thing to hit politics since the Reichstag Fire, it’s worth flagging up any whispers of discontent you hear from the local comrades with your boss. The thought of the grim looks from the whips’ office when it becomes clear that your party was responsible for those unhelpful eve-of-leader’s-speech headlines tends to concentrate the mind of the most Conference-drunk MP.
With junior members of your office, this is the one and only time it is acceptable to pull rank. Explain to them that whilst they are young, the girls are pretty, and the Chateau Brighton Pavilion is flowing like water, if you get the merest hint that they are planning to lead a drunken charge past the assembled press corps on the night before your boss’ fringe event on the dangers of binge drinking, they can expect to be ritualistically disembowelled before the Daily Mail journalist can say “booze Britain”.
Addressing the Conference hall
Timing in politics is everything, which is probably one of the reasons that – according to kiss and tell revelations in the Sundays – MPs make such rubbish lovers.
If he or she has decided address the Conference, call in whatever favours you need to in order to ensure that this happens early on in proceedings, preferably a day or so before the Leader’s speech. If it happens the same day, the media won’t be focussed on it as they will have other priorities, and as soon as your party’s answer to the next Prime Minister has sat down, there is a mass journalistic exodus which means that your boss’ Churchillian stylings will go largely unreported if he is scheduled afterwards. Worse than this, if you get a slot right at the end of Conference, you will spend the preceding week in increasingly pointless editorial meetings, removing – in the words of Oscar Wilde – commas in the morning and putting them back in again in the afternoon, until he or she finally stands up in front of the massed ranks of one audience member, who is only there to sleep off the night before.
Unless your boss is a die-hard member of your party’s awkward squad, it should be noted that the current trend for Conference speeches is “bland with a dusting of buzzwords.” For example, phrases such as “we need radical consensus on moving forward into a new era of progressive thinking about the allocation of resources to police the new Marine Conservation Zones” or “I believe that now is the time for a national debate on tractor provision in North Leicestershire” will earn your boss approving nods from the whips office grateful for their loyalty, and endear them to the next generation of Parliamentarians for whom this counts as political philosophy.
Appearing in a fringe event
Most MPs are invited in some capacity or other to appear in a fringe event, so here’s some dos and don’ts:
DO ensure that it’s a topic they have at least a nodding acquaintance with; otherwise you will be lumbered with a load of tiresome research you are never going to use again. More than this, there is a higher than usual chance that your boss is going to let rip a howler if he doesn’t know the subject matter, and run the risk of spending the rest of the Conference receiving pitying looks from 19 year old policy wonks.
DO check who else is appearing at the event alongside your boss. For example, a panel comprising of your employer, five page three girls, and Russell Brand will not be seen as evidence of his “zaniness” by either the regional press or the local feminist movement.
DON’T allow him to sign up to anything which has the word “breakfast” in the title, unless you both want to spend the duration of the event hoping no one has noticed the visible hum of beer around you both as you concentrate desperately on trying not to throw up.
Managing the diary
The power of prayer is a most underrated tactic in managing an MP’s diary at the best of times, but at Conference you really have no hope of maintaining even a small semblance of order.
Your best bet is to have a job lot of copies for the diary each day that can be amended in line with your boss’ whim at your morning or evening meeting. In reality this will mean you will spend an hour twice a day in furious concentration over a pile of business cards, receipts with illegible scribble on them, and jottings made on your intern’s hand which comprise most Member of Parliament’s conception of what “diary management” constitutes.
Making do with the facilities
Doubtless at some stage your boss will want to issue a press release or send an email which, as Conference veterans will tell you, usually requires a three hour wait in a queue for one of the two elderly desktops provided by your party for use by Parliamentarians. Beg, borrow, or bring your own laptop unless you want to waste most of your day waiting for a line of MPs checking what’s going down on Twitter or updating their Facebook statuses.
In addition NEVER spend money, unless you are either a millionaire or are literally dying of thirst or hunger, within the Conference “ring of steel.” There are plenty of events with free food simply waiting to be raided by ravenous bag-carriers without underpaid staffers having to remortgage their souls for the sake of a whiffy chicken sandwich.
You will return to your office to find your desk buried under a pile of correspondence that has built up whilst you’ve been away, and a mini-avalanche of business cards that your boss will have collected from his new friends. Worse than that, you will also find a series of ominous sounding voice messages from an individual whom your employer had met in the bar very late one night, pleased that he was so committed to the cause of sunflower farming in the Czech Republic and suggesting a meeting.
Still, Conference comes but once a year.
Dean Trench/September 2009
Added by Dean Trench on 8th September 2009
Update September 2010