I’ve been to a good many Conferences in my time. Labour used to give great drama. But some have so entered into our collective memories – Nye Bevan’s speeches, for example, – I am no longer sure whether I was there or not.
But one I am sure about was in 1985 at Bournemouth. I was there when Neil Kinnock attacked Derek Hatton and the Militant faction in Liverpool in a ferocious speech: “A Council, a Labour Council, hiring taxis to scuttle round handing out redundancy notices to its own staff”. I was, in fact, sitting right behind Derek Hatton in the Conference Hall as this took place and saw his furious reaction, with his grimacing face and waving arms.
A couple of times, I have spoken from the rostrum. It is rather an intimidating experience, speaking to such a large audience, but once in the swing of the speech, I soon forgot the crowd.
But it’s not just events inside the hall, there are the things that happen outside. One year I was there when Women’s Lib (as it was then called) made its first big impact. A lot wore dungarees and were very visible. There were shouts from the floor whenever the Chairman – a traditional Scotsman – addressed a woman as “Lassie” or “lady”. Many of the men (and some women) were bewildered by these complaints.
Not everyone entered into the spirit. I went to one fringe meeting on the topic with my wife and Margaret and Ron Burgess. Ron was a Guildford Labour councillor, a good friend of ours and he had a wicked sense of humour. While the meeting was being addressed by a series of earnest women, Ron made paper aeroplanes. He wrote messages on them “Will you come out with me tonight” and flew them to the speakers. I’m glad to say no-one picked them up. As Margaret said “If they had, you wouldn’t have got out alive”.
Less funnily, while we were in our rather down at heel boarding house, we bumped into another of our friends, Brian. Brian was a large man and as he was coming from the bathroom, he just had on his pyjama bottoms which balanced uneasily on his vast stomach. He then said “The trouble with these women is that they are all so ugly”!
Jill and I looked at each other and had the same thought “How can you of all people say that”.
But the weirdest thing that happened was when Jill and I were leaving a Blackpool conference. We had gone to the station to wait for a train. This was always a short train, too short for the number of passengers. You’d have thought that British Rail would have noticed a big conference was on and put on a longer train, but no, they never did.
We were waiting in a long queue straggling out from the station when it started to rain. I thought: “If the queue made a loop where it leaves the covered area of the station, so it wiggles in and out, we could all get out of the rain”. So, I went up to the appropriate place in the queue and asked if they could turn the queue so we could all get under cover. They saw the sense and obliged. But one woman was furious with me. She said: “Who gave you permission to move the queue?
I replied “No-one. I just thought it was a good idea”.
She then said “Who gave you the authority? Are you a member of the Union?”
I replied again “What Union”
She then said” Everyone will just make a dash for the train when it comes in and we’ll lose our place – I’m going to report you to my Union Executive”
I noticed from her badge that she was a member of a printing Trade Union, which I didn’t think had much to do with it. She continued to harangue me and I turned away to avoid her. But then the train came in. Everyone made a dash for it, as she had said they would. But Jill and I got seats. And we found ourselves sharing a carriage with the General Secretary of the Labour Party so we had a good chat.
Away from the frivolities, like most others attending these conferences, I get caught up in the atmosphere and enjoy myself, meeting and arguing with people who share my basic beliefs. In 1980, I was already strongly against Mrs Thatcher’s ideas and attending the conference made me feel I personally had to take action.
I was full of enthusiasm and decided that the best thing I could do to stop Mrs Thatcher’s plans was for me to stand for Parliament.
I put my plan into action and was indeed the Labour candidate for Guildford in 1983.
Unfortunately I did not win and Mrs Thatcher remained as Prime Minister.
Copyright Keith Chesterton Mar 2020