The way we were: Life of the party

Extracts from articles and diaries on party conferences, chosen by Ian Irvine
September 21, 2011
Denis Healey after speaking at the Labour party conference in Blackpool, October 1976

Labour MP Tom Driberg’s diary entry on the party conference, 3rd October 1952

Just home from the annual Labour party conference—this year at Morecambe, a resort whose hideousness is redeemed only by the excellence of the potted shrimps and by the architecture of the Midland Hotel… it was an unexpected refreshment to find, in the lounge of a middle-class English hotel, a large mural by Eric Gill.

This was the occasion on which it had been expected that the differences within the Labour party would “come out in the wash”; and most of us have had cause to complain of the roughness of laundries. So the conference was sometimes unedifying, rowdy; now bitter, now generous; passionately quarrelsome, quick to acknowledge humanity and humour. By contrast, this week’s Tory conference will probably be sedate, discreet and “united” (because the rows and intrigues are mostly off-stage). It will also be dead from the neck up.

Barbara Castle, then health and social services secretary, writes in her diary about the run-up to the Labour party conference, 26th September 1975

Everybody has been predicting terrible rows at the conference. Certainly there have been floods of resolutions denouncing the government’s economic policy and expenditure cuts and demanding massive increases in expenditure on this and that. The main item at the National Executive Committee was to discuss the proposed statement on jobs and prices… I was surprised by how much Denis [Healey, the chancellor] was prepared to give to get agreement. He gave away much more than I expected him to, and he was rewarded for his pains by getting the same line-up against him on the final vote as he would have got anyway. If I had been Denis I would have crawled up to my room wanting to die moaning “I’m a failure.” I suspect Denis has no such self-doubts, which is why he deserves to survive more than I do.

Frank Johnson reports for The Times from the second conference of the Social Democrat party, 13th October 1982

How representative are the Social Democrats? Well among those on the platform at Cardiff was Miss Polly Toynbee, of the Guardian. There was also Miss Mary Stott, another distinguished name connected with the Guardian. Speaking during the education debate was Miss Sue Slipman, whose reasons for leaving the Communist Party and joining the SDP were spread over four or five impenetrable columns of Monday morning’s Guardian. And the chairman of a fringe meeting on child poverty was Mr Malcolm Dean, who, according to the conference agenda, is a journalist on the Guardian. All of which confirms fears that the SDP is not representative at all. Indeed, there are vast, important areas of the Guardian which appear to be completely unrepresented in the party. Why, for example, has the SDP proved so far incapable of winning support among the Trotskyists? Their traditional power base is on the Guardian’s letters page. And what is the SDP doing to attract the philistines? They control much of the arts page. True, the party appears to be picking up votes among the editorials and from some wards of the traditionally affluent column by Mr Peter Jenkins. Could it be that the very venue of the conference’s first two days, St David’s Hall in Cardiff, is a symbol, a piece of imagery, a metaphor, nay, a bit of iconography, embodying the plight of the party, as a whole? The hall is very new, clean, beautiful, pleasant, and with very few people in it.

Woodrow Wyatt records the Tory conference in his journal, 13th October 1989

In the afternoon I watched Mrs Thatcher making her speech. She was magnificent. They went on cheering for ten minutes or more and Willie Whitelaw couldn’t stop them. He was the president in charge of the chair at the time. He rang a bell but still they went on shouting, “Ten more years, ten more years, ten more years,” and then they sang as well, “Happy birthday to you.”

Gyles Brandreth, a prospective Conservative candidate, writes in his diary about his first conference, 11th October 1991

The party conference is an extraordinary phenomenon. It’s only the activists who sit through the debates. Everybody else is junketing, non-stop. There’s a nice freemasonry among the prospective candidates. I fell into conversation with one man who was standing for some godforsaken northern backwater. “Do you live in the constituency?” I asked. “Good God no,” he spluttered. “Happiness is the constituency in the rear-view mirror.”