It might not be everybody’s idea of entertaining television – and, to be frank, it’s not necessarily mine; but the party conference season is with us again, and at one time this strange, ritualistic Eurovision-for-politicians spectacle used to provide bored afternoon viewers with unintentionally entertaining podium performers. Some looked as though they’d never set foot on a stage in their lives, reminiscent of the shy kid forced to read a passage from the Bible in school assembly. The experienced orators, their ability to project a point across a crowded room honed in the bear-pit of the Commons, tended to dominate the edited highlights, but as a live television event, a party conference once blended boredom and the bizarre like few other broadcasts.
Prior to the advent of BBC Parliament, party conferences were the province of BBC2. Anyone who was off-sick in the 70s will remember switching over from schools programmes on BBC1 to be confronted by an audience of beige bruisers with unkempt, wavy grey hair occupying a crumbling Victorian hall enveloped in a Sherlock Holmes pea-souper fog of pipe and cigarette smoke. Through the dense tobacco mist could be discerned a platform inhabited by half-familiar faces from the news, minor cabinet members – some wearing curiously incongruous sunglasses (perhaps to protect their eyes from the toxic vapours) – alongside the heavyweight frontbench Mafiosi. If it was a Tory conference, there’d be a sprinkling of middle-aged ladies in elaborate hats who seemed to be en route to Ascot or a WI shindig; if it was a Labour conference, the ensembles on view exuded a distinct Stalin-esque sartorial severity.
As a child, the first sight of a party conference – and I’d include the TUC Annual Congress, which was an even greater window onto eccentric ensembles than the Open University – provoked instant yawns, but the sudden appearance of a shambolic speaker fluffing their fifteen minutes could provide unlikely hilarity akin to the same immature humour derived from chuckling at a singing congregation on ‘Songs of Praise’. Party conferences were fairly unique transmissions in the 1970s and 80s. The only other live broadcasts that spanned an equal amount of hours at the time were sports ones, particularly the Olympic Games; and some of the less engaging orators on the conference podiums were the political equivalent of those obscure Olympic events hidden away at 3.00 in the morning. There must be a rich archive of such moments buried in the BBC vaults, and they seem to be amongst the few gems not unearthed for retrospective consumption this century, with the honourable exception of William Hague’s 1977 appearance as the Tory answer to Little Jimmy Osmond.
Having said that, Harold Wilson’s 1975 conference speech, his last as both Labour leader and Prime Minister, was repeated on BBC Parliament a couple of years ago and, to my surprise, I was quite impressed. He’d have known then that he was shortly to bow out of politics and possibly imbued his speech with a bit of extra oomph as a consequence; but however slick Wilson’s PR was portrayed at the time, I thought the striking contrast between Huddersfield’s favourite son (both in content and delivery) and Ed Miliband seemed to epitomise the changes in the way politicians are presented to the public. What Wilson had to say was noticeably free from the Westminster gobbledygook cloaked in those infuriatingly incomprehensible and nonsensical Birt-isms that so alienate the electorate; and the development of this form of politics has had its showcase over the past twenty-five/thirty years during the party conference season far more than in the Commons.
The Tories under both Mrs T and Major, followed by Labour and the Liberals, gradually began to professionalise the conference experience in the 80s and 90s – hosting the gatherings in shiny new multi-purpose venues and ensuring the speakers had a bland makeover before their stint at the microphone, helping to engineer the move towards an unholy aesthetic union between politicians and salesmen. The days when David Owen could address an audience with a haircut pre-empting the one made famous by Phil Oakey of The Human League were gone.
Even the platforms were given a facelift that made them more like the stage of an arena gig, with huge video screens for the benefit of the man on the back row; the traditional practice of having the cabinet (or shadow cabinet) seated on the stage as each took their turn to deliver a speech was also abolished, shifting them onto the front row of the audience so they received the same view as everyone else of the star performer. The only things missing from the facsimile gig approach were the lighters in the air during a party leader’s big speech, but the smoking ban negated their presence. Soon it was hard to distinguish between them and those horrible business conferences that always end with a blast of ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ on the desperate dance-floor.
Although not a party conference, Neil Kinnock’s notorious Sheffield Arena get-together on the eve of the 1992 General Election, one in which a range of Labour-endorsing celebs joined the shadow cabinet on stage to hail the imminent victory that never came, foreshadowed the showbizzy nature of future party conferences. Under St Tony and the New Labour machine, ‘sexing up’ the conference season would serve to banish social-worker chic from the podium and would instead have the Vicar of Albion approximating lyrics from a hit record (‘Labour’s Coming Home’) and recruiting the likes of Bono to flatter him and his next-door-neighbour by comparing them to Lennon and McCartney. If party conferences were a drink, they’d gone from being a pint of Tetley Bitter to a Diet Pepsi.
Yet, with the unexpected re-emergence of the old Left, perhaps entertaining amateurs are back on the agenda again. Labour’s first post-Miliband conference is underway as we speak, with positive signs that ill-at-ease orators are poised to return. We’ve already had a woman using Cyndi Lauper as a style model taking to the podium and another in a wheelchair – neither of whom could be called slick. And watching Citizen Corbyn’s first speech as party leader yesterday, I found an accidental (?) decision of the director to show the audience response to one of Jezzer’s statements to be beautifully timed. Following a plea to end misogynistic online abuse, the camera cut to a shot of applauding delegates, with the unfortunate angle chosen displaying a close-up of a fine pair of female legs in the foreground, the apparent peering towards the hemline uncomfortably reminiscent of a ‘Top of the Pops’ shot of Pan’s People. Sometimes, events that promise the dreariest form of TV thrills can make your day if you don’t get out much.