A few years ago, while visiting a friend of mine who is a self-confessed political anorak, I stumbled across a VHS cassette on his bookshelf – Best Party Conference Speeches.
It was a Friday night. I was a little bored. I had already drunk too many beers. So I allowed a moment of complete madness to take control, whipped the tape down from the shelf, launched it across the room at my disgruntled mate and barked at him to get it on the telly.
As we sat and laughed at the old black & white coverage of the 1950s, I didn’t appreciate what we were watching. The tape whirred along and we saw some of our greatest orators doing what they did best. Whether or not you agreed with a single word coming out of their mouths, you had to admire their passion, determination and oratory skills. I’ve never admitted it before, but I loved every minute of it. I realised that I, too, had become an anorak.
I’d forgotten all about that video until this week, when 91-year-old Harry Smith took to the Manchester stage at the Labour Party conference.
You could tell, as he started to tell his story, that not only would this brave and determined man receive a well-deserved standing ovation, but his would be the speech of the week and will be remembered long after the contributions of Ed Miliband and Ed Balls are forgotten.
That is what a party conference lives or dies on: characters and stories. It is the characters who provide the oxygen in an otherwise stuffy and, at times, lifeless conference hall. It is the rabble rousers who get the party faithful going and remind them of why they all made the trip to the annual get-together. And it is the stories that provide the inspiration for the next generation of would-be activists and politicians.
If you thought the conference was there to debate policy and find the solutions to the problems of the day, you can be forgiven. Some attendees might tell you that is what they are looking for. But all of them are actually looking for Harry. In sharp contrast to the days of old when the conference was a policy-making authority, there are no decisions made, no votes taken and very limited debate. And who would want a debate when they can listen to Harry?
As teary-eyed senior politicians looked on from the stage and from across the hall, Harry shared the story of his early life. His parents loved him and his sisters and would do anything to keep them safe and out of harm’s way. But, growing up in a Barnsley slum, they couldn’t afford the medicines that were in the sole ownership of the rich. Harry lost his sister because his parents couldn’t afford to pay for the treatment she needed. Her body was discarded in a ‘Paupers’ Pit’ because they couldn’t afford a burial.
Harry’s shaky voice went on to talk about the dangers of his past being our future. His stark warning built to a crescendo. The hall waited with baited breath as Harry bathed them in nonagenarian love and a political passion which is rarely seen at 21st century conferences.
And then, as Harry dug deep one last time, gesticulating like a man 40 years his junior, expelling air that had barely reached his throat, he exclaimed “Mr Cameron, hands off my NHS!” The hall erupted. The moment belonged to Harry and Harry alone.
I’ve attended many conferences across the political divides. Many have a ‘moment’ – five minutes of star quality when a Harry walks on to the stage. It’s what people sit in the hall waiting for. Hours go by as they listen to endless waffle and boring speeches, but they will sit there just in case Harry is called up to the microphone.
Party conference today is a different animal than it was in the past. It serves a different purpose and means different things to the different audiences that attend – the media, party members, politicians, lobby groups, charities, corporates. They are all there, but many question why they bother. The approach, agenda, logistics and choreography are planned down to the smallest detail, and stage management is key. It is a party showcase, not a debating chamber.
To me, the party conference will always be the annual meeting of the membership. I accept that, in some cases, it has been taken over by the needs of the party machinery to try to make money or to score some media hits. But to me, it is a meeting of the party faithful.
So why do the members attend?
They are looking for reassurance – reassurance that the party is alive and well and that their daily efforts pounding the streets, delivering leaflets, sitting through endless council planning meetings or organising the latest cheese and wine fundraiser are worth it. Harry smothered the Labour movement in reassurance.
They are looking for energy – energy that they will take back to their constituencies and share with their colleagues or comrades. Energy that will propel them on to the next local, national, European or even devolved Assembly election. At the grand old age of 91, Harry soaked them with energy.
They are looking for friends – friends who can share their stories of fighting the good fight and who can show them that they are not alone, that it is all worth it. Everyone at that conference wanted to be Harry’s friend.
And, regardless of whether I agree with his underlying message, so do I.
Richard Stephenson attended his first party conference aged 17. A decade later he became the youngest ever chairman of the Conservative Party conference. He has attended party conferences of all the major parties in a political or professional capacity and believes they still have a role to play in the annual life of a political party – but he is of the firm belief that they could be so much better. He loves waiting for the gaffes and for the star quality moments that happen every conference season.