The Labour Conference: Chuka Umunna, blagging free food and ‘Loose Women’
Stand-up comedian Gráinne Maguire will be filing dispatches from this year’s Labour Party Conference in Manchester.
The first day of the conference and the rain is pelting. As is usually the case at these events, it is held on the outside of the city centre in a wilderness of roundabouts and dual carriage ways. I wander lost, feeling like I’m in the opening sequence of some grim exploitation film about inner city crime.
Finally, the home of the Labour Party for the next five days comes into view, surrounded by a welcoming committee of trade union activists, fringe members and interest groups handing out flyers for their various fringe events. In Edinburgh flyers are young, over-enthusiastic drama students, here they are sturdily dressed political hardcores, bundled in fleeces; aggressive and judgmental, a tricky but impressive combination to carry off.
The first person I see as I walk into the conference centre is Jack Straw. It’s disconcerting, like seeing an actor that you instinctively don’t trust because they played a baddie in a film once but you can’t quite place. Whether it’s the rain or first day nerves or just a Sunday in Manchester, an air of gloom hangs over the proceedings.
My first event is a Q&A with shadow cabinet golden boy Chuka Umunna. The room is full of middle aged women in jeans, glasses and short snappy haircuts and younger men in suits, mainly journalists, discussing football. I overhear two delegates, obviously at their first conference, excitedly discussing the receptions they were at the night before. ‘We just need to remember conference is a marathon not a sprint,’ they agree earnestly as they compare hangovers. They’ll probably be in the cabinet in twenty year’s time.
If you’re not a delegate or a worker for the party conversation is tricky. You float like a ghost at the edge of chats, instead of being the fascinating outside figure that I had hoped I’d appear, I stop conversation dead. I feel like one of those extras in The Only Way is Essex that never gets to speak.
Audiences at conference are a strange beast. Instead of being a passive round of applause at the theatre, or a fractured laugh and heckle of a comedy crowd, at political talks they take on their own distinct group personality. They murmur, clap, punctuate every gap in the speaker’s address with a sound loaded with judgement. Just as Eskimos’ supposedly have a thousand words for snow, I swear I have already heard at least twelve different types of crowd silence today already. They like Chuka and react to him like an indulgent teacher watching a favourite pupil.
I am feeling better now because I have free sandwiches. There is an art to blagging free food at fringe events: walk into a room, load your plate, then wander around eating it, looking vaguely into the middle distance without making eye contact with anyone. Then act like you’ve just remembered something really important, get your bags and leave distractedly. I’ve used this to method to get canapés at a talk about Turkey and sandwiches at a talk on Europe.
My final event for the day is a talk on the impact of the Coalition’s cuts on women. For an event with so much free booze it was a sobering hour. In a brightly lit packed out room, rain pounding on the windows, the top table spelled out the impact that public sector job losses, tax credit changes and disability allowances cuts have had on women. It is like the most depressing episode of Loose Women I have ever seen. Forget white wine, they should be passing about a bottle of gin.
Afterwards, I emerge from the gloom, back to the bracing normality of a comedy gig in town. The glorious Barabra Nice is the first act on. A character act, she plays a middle aged housewife from Manchester and is a celebration of fun, being normal and getting on with things. By the end of her set, she has the once miserable Monday night audience, giggling like children, dancing to a Bollywood song. It was the first sensible response to the state we’re in that I’d heard all day.Tagged in: Chuka Umunna, jack straw, Labour conference, labour party
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