Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Conference Days

I'm in a generally cheery mood. Chiefly this is because I am well on the way to organising a long weekend in Rome at the end of March, even if opera tickets for the occasion appear to be beyond the deep pockets of even the Scottish Legal Aid Board.

But I'm also cheery because the Party Conference is approaching this very next weekend.

I used to regard the Scottish Labour Party Conference as the single most important highlight of my year.

Always (then) held on the second weekend in March, its occurrence marked the coming of Spring. A new suit would be bought specially for the occasion and, every second or third year, a new red tie of a width to accord with current fashion.

There was a ritual to events. "Compositing" (an art now as almost as lost as sail-making) would take place on the Thursday afternoon. In this manner would the general "betrayal" of the mood of the constituencies begin. This would then be followed be the meeting of the Scottish Executive to decide the recommendations on the "Composites". Here "the Right" would show their true colours, sorting those wilder demands which could be met with a recommendation of straight rejection from the more cleverly worded propositions which, while equally unacceptable, had to be offered a "remit to the Scottish Executive". That remit, if accepted would consign them to oblivion but if it were rejected would justify their equal fate of outright rejection by the Executive and, more importantly on the floor of the Conference, by the Union block vote.

But, at this point, the night was still young.

Following the conclusion of the Scottish executive took place the "Left Meeting". Anybody who thought themselves on "the Left" was entitled to attend this event, even those who were clearly actually on "the Right". This was invariably a beanfeast. Allegations would be exchanged in the most intemperate terms about betrayal both at the compositing meetings and the Executive. Nothing would ever be agreed except that we had all been betrayed by somebody. And then we'd listen to all of the betrayers and the betrayees making their case for re-election either to the Standing Orders Committee (who managed the compositing) or to the Executive itself.

But the night (or possibly the early morning) was yet young.

At this point the assembled activists divided. like Gaul, into three parts: the drinkers; the printers and the shaggers.

I was always a printer. Leaflets, denouncing the betrayal earlier in the day, and commenting on its consequence required to be written, printed and then, if energy remained, distributed. As the Chairman commented, the longest journey still needs a first step.

The drinkers however were the most numerous in number; possibly due to the large number of delegates there from Trade Unions or affluent (i.e. with a Social Club) Constituencies who enjoyed the luxury of being "on expenses". And anyway, a few drinks always helped build up a proper steam of betrayal.

The last group, the shaggers, were however a closed world to me. I can honestly say that I have never had sex with anybody at a Labour Party Conference. There are surely another 51 Weekends of the year to indulge in such activity. I did once, I should make clear as a younger, and single, man, set off to conference with an intention to join their ranks, having set my eye on a particular comradess in advance, but, once I got there, the lure of the printing was just too strong.

And all this before the Conference even started.

Friday, the UK Leaders speech. Saturday, the Scottish Leaders Speech. The fraternal delegates from the Co-op Party and the STUC. The General Secretary's address. In between, the debates, full of passion, and then the votes, full of betrayal. And then the final Sunday morning session. Never has so much Irn Bru been drunk in one place by so many in such little time.

And every year, as we sang the Red Flag, a regret that the next Conference, and the next betrayal, seemed so far away.

And yet, by this archaic process, we changed Scotland. By committing Labour, post '79, to not abandoning devolution. By taking us into the Convention and by then, Conference by Conference, negotiating a mandate for the Convention scheme. By making it clear that Home Rule was not negotiable as an objective for the Scottish Labour Party and then, in a bizarre last hurrah, electing Donald Dewar to lead us into the first Scottish Parliament Elections by 99.8% of the votes cast.

Conferences don't really feature betrayal any more. They are more professional events, staged managed for the media. As much drinking still goes on and, for all I know, so does as much shagging, but the printers are largely no more.

So I suppose I should be depressed at the thought that what awaits me in Dundee is no more than an echo of a lost world. But my first Labour Conferences coincided with the high water marks of Thatcherism. Pamphlets were circulated, and not just by "the Right" with titles such as "Can Labour ever win again?"  Even Eric Hobsbawm seemed to have concluded for the moment that the pessimism of the intellect was superior to the optimism of the will. The only redeeming feature of The Forward March of Labour Halted? was the question mark itself.

But we did come back. And we did so because we didn't give up. And conferences in an odd way reassured us that there were others who were not for giving up either. So here's to Dundee. And to the future.

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