The Conference Season Cometh

Caricature on the ending of the Conference in Europe since Versailles by David Low. Published 23rd May 1937
Caricature on the ending of the Conference in Europe since Versailles by David Low. Published 23rd May 1937

September 2010: This little gem is so stuffed with good advice that we thought, now the conference season is here again, it deserves another airing.  W4MP Ed.

Start saving your money and scrabbling around behind the back of the sofa for the odd quid, book your train tickets, and put your liver on red alert, for it is the season of long political speeches, over-coiffed aspirants air-kissing each other, and nights of drunken debauchery that last until dawn. That’s right: it’s Conference!

This is the time when bag-carriers traditionally go on a form of Royal Progress with their employers to whatever windswept, ruinously expensive town that public transport forgot that the Party chiefs – in their wisdom – have decided is going to play host this year to several thousand politicians, hangers-on, and journalists. Obviously attendance, for most staffers at least, is a running three-line whip from the boss. Obviously as it’s a party rather than Parliamentary affair, you’ll be expected to stump up the cash for your Conference pass, accommodation, and transport yourself. Super.

For first-timers (or even seasoned professionals) the modern Conference can be a daunting time so, as always, we at W4MP have asked that old pro, Dean Trench, to produce a little guide to help you dodge the pitfalls.

Applying for a pass

Gone are the days when filling in your name and address and enclosing a crisp tenner would buy you the right to wander around your Party’s Conference with impunity. Nope, in the era post 9/11 (and after everyone realised that charging over the odds for a dodgy laminated photo was a useful supplement to the old finances) the application form process has become fraught with requirement. Not only do you need a PhD to fill the damn thing in, but the level of detail and fatuity is second only to those questionnaires you have to complete when you fly to America that assure the authorities that you don’t plan to bomb anything during the course of your visit, nor have you ever been a Communist.

The key – in a manner similar to voting in certain boroughs – is to go early and often. Conferences start in September so start the first draft of your application in March time.  Once you’ve identified three independent witnesses that can verify that you are not either Osama bin Laden or James Blunt, found the hundred quid that it costs, had the form sent back to you five times because you haven’t filled in the bit about whether you dress to the left or the right, and the party’s lost it a further six … you are in the closing days of August and cutting it a bit fine.

Accommodation dos and don’ts (“busking”)

Everybody knows that party Conferences have the ability to bring out the inner Scrooge in the most upstanding of hotel proprietors, so make sure that you book your accommodation early if you don’t want to end up paying an emperor’s ransom. But however early you book, you WILL get stiffed: accept the fact that you could afford a week at the Ritz with hookers and hard drugs thrown in for what you are paying for a camp bed in a room that smells of wee … and move on.

Don’t, by the way, ask with faux-innocence whether you get a complimentary “special services” for the outrageous cost of your fixer-upper with the questionable stains on the bedsheets. Depending on where your party’s conference is that year, you could run into a whole world of trouble should your request be taken seriously.

And on the subject of trouble, now is the time to introduce those who are blessedly unaware of the practice to the dangers of not booking a room and trying to cadge a kipping space on someone’s floor, or “busking” as it’s known in political circles. Busking is a bad idea:

  • … when you do it: There is no guarantee that your friends will allow you to sleep on their floor for a whole host of reasons (see below) and you may well end up either sharing a bottle of turps with Barry the Tramp under the pier, or forced to undertake other horrific duties in order to secure a bed for the night;
  • … when your friends do it: You have no idea what a person is really like until you’ve lived with them. That clean-cut intern of yours could easily have the personal habits of Baldrick, and nobody wants to return to their room for a quick shave and brush-up before the evening festivities to find their guest’s pants soaking in the sink and their toenail clippings carefully arranged in the bath;
  • … but ESPECIALLY when your boss does it: Conference is a time of fevered press speculation, whatever your party, and the rumour that your employer was sighted strolling out of the room of a senior colleague in the early hours is likely to bring out the inner-schoolboy in every member of the fourth estate who hears it. Either that or they assume that evil plotting is afoot, and you’ll spend the rest of your urban sojourn on the phone to tabloid hacks attempting to explain the concept of “busking” to them which will cut into valuable beering time. Worse still, you could feel obliged to offer your room to your boss. No bag-carrier deserves to wake to the image of their MP strolling nonchalantly in the direction of the bathroom clad only in their boxers and clutching a toothbrush.

Helping out your boss at Conference

Members of Parliament love Conference, by and large. For them it’s the last party of the summer before the House returns (and many of them can’t wait for that either). After a summer of holidaying dutifully with the duly designated spouse and offspring, and a seemingly never-ending round of constituency engagements, Conference is the ideal bachelor(ette) reunion.

However, it is your job – amidst the high-jinks and japes – to sound a note of caution. As happy as your boss might be to see his or her friends again, be aware that Conference is crawling with journalists all desperate to get an “insider” story and local party members who, whilst they smile and smile, may still be villains. Try not to let their natural exuberance (bless ‘em) or the free booze impair their judgment. No bag-carrier wants to speculatively blag their way into a reception to hear their employer at the end of a long and possibly slanderous rant that concludes with the words, “ah! Here’s my researcher. He’ll tell you all about it!”

On an even less salubrious note, Conference can occasionally play host to misjudged romantic adventures reminiscent of ancient Rome when Nero was at the height of his sexual deviancy. If you get wind that your boss has done something he or she shouldn’t, attempt to dissuade them from telling their constituency representatives. As my one-time colleague once said of a scenario involving a well-known politician who was outed in such a way: “he boasted to his local Party group about it? Why didn’t he just hand the photos to the News of the Screws himself?”

Tips for getting around and getting on

The average Conference is a busy place packed full of young aspirants, eager-eyed pressure group workers, and sharply suited aspirants. Here are a few tips for keeping your cool in the occasionally manic and febrile atmosphere:

  • Avoid leaflet touts shoving stuff at you: Start speaking in tongues if you see them approach. They’ll think you’re mad and back off;
  • Beware security: Security guards at entrance points to the protective “ring of steel” around Conference all tend to carry big guns and have permission to act appropriately if somebody dashes through the search point without stopping. If you find yourself accidentally doing this, try to remember not to reach into your breast pocket for your mobile phone/packet of cigarettes at the same time;
  • Biro challenge: Fed up of eking out your last working Bic in the frugal months that precede the beginning of the new financial year? Conference is the ideal time to stock up on complimentary pens and assorted stationary from the various stands. Take a binbag with you;
  • Don’t eat at the cafeterias in the Conference centre: Not unless you want to spend ten quid on a cold cup of coffee and a sandwich containing suspiciously whiffy and translucent chicken;
  • Wear a suit: People will think you’re important which is both nice for the novelty value and important for blagging invitations.

Blagging, free food, and not paying for stuff

From June onwards your office will begin to receive invitations to various receptions, meetings, and dinners – a stream that will become a deluge come August. Get hold of a lever-arch folder and file each invite chronologically. Before Conference begins, go through the file with your boss and work out which ones he or she wants to go to.

The rest? Well, they’re all yours to attend as “a representative of Joe Bloggs MP.” Spend an hour or so after you arrive in the bed-bug ridden pit you’ve rented for a week carefully deciding which ones you’d like to go to. As a guide, invites containing the word(s):

  • “Breakfast meeting”: are best avoided as it means getting up about an hour after you’ve gone to bed. The subject matter also tends to be a little on the worthy side, and unless you are into talking about “Progressificationalism and Radical Centralification in Public Sector Special Purpose Vehicles: The Case for Reformalisation” at 6am with a roaring hangover, they just aren’t worth the promise of the complimentary continental;
  •  “Special guest”: means the hosts have invited John McCain to speak but in their heart of hearts know they are going to get sent the volunteer who makes the tea in the Massachusetts campaign office instead;
  • “Staffers’ party”: will contain hot interns and booze. It doesn’t usually matter if you are actually staff or not in terms of getting in;
  • “Refreshments available”: you will be served victuals by the Cut-Price Generic Dodgy Curry Company who have been contracted to provide most of the week’s grub;
  • Contains the word “Young”: likely to contain a high percentage of adolescents who will hector you about various bits of technocratic minutiae whilst they hog the biscuits. Likelihood of free wine: low. Likelihood of free Clearasil: high. Avoid like the plague.

As a wise MP once said to me, it’s important not to front-load the week. There’s no sense in ruining yourself on too much Chateau North of England on the first couple of nights if you are going to render yourself incapacitated for some of the more decent stuff later on.

Occasionally one of your mates will get his or her hands on an invitation to an exclusive party which is for the named invitee only. That does not mean it is not worth a crack at getting in on their coat tails. Experiment with ideas such as pretending to be their same sex partner (no organisation wants to look non-inclusive in the presence of either a potential or actual Government), but beware. Ploys such as getting in yourself and then letting forty-three of your friends in through the fire escape or attempting to sneak in through an open window can occasionally lead to a night in the cells if, for some reason, the event is subject to high security.

The aftermath

Spend the next month in the gym sweating out everything you’ve taken in over the previous week, trying to work out who the mystery new numbers you’ve added to your mobile phone belong to, and vowing that you’ll never do Conference again.

By the time you’ve been released from the Betty Ford Clinic, the application forms for next year will start arriving. Hmmm. Well, why not, eh?

What could possibly go wrong?

Dean Trench

September 2010 update:  Our man Dean has more conference-related wisdom for you, entitled ‘How to Carry Bags at Party Conference’ or ‘How to keep the boss sweet and manage the madness’.. It’s here.

Read more of Dean’s musings here.


Originally added on 28th September 2008