Perhaps it’s age, perhaps disillusion, or perhaps party conferences really aren’t what they used to be, but I have struggled this autumn against something that has seemed to be carrying me away. As with a swimmer drawn from the shore by a strong current he cannot see, I’m trying not to leave but the people on the beach seem to be getting smaller, and the holiday noise, the shouts and laughter, grows faint.
I knew my duty on arriving on the south coast for the Liberal Democrats’ annual gathering. It was to sit through conference debates in the vile windowless warehouse that is the Brighton Centre, scarring the waterfront with a great slab of concrete that’s blind to the sea, and take the temperature of a party in sharply reduced circumstances. A columnist ought to find that interesting. God knows I tried.
But as I left the railway station to walk down to the seafront, only one ambition, one strong curiosity, one love, gripped me. How was my tree?
Last year Labour had been here. Escaping the nastiness I’d walked up to the clock–tower crossroads — and noticed a doomed evergreen oak tree. Central Brighton is poor in trees and this was one of only two at the busy intersection. The other was dead already: someone or something had rasped all the bark off the bottom few feet of the trunk, ‘ringing’ it, with the unvarying consequence that the sap cannot rise and the leaves wither. The same ringing was occurring to the other tree, but there was still an artery of bark a few inches wide, up to the branches: the foliage was still green and strong. So I had spent a few hours buying gaffer tape and swathing the whole lower trunk to protect what bark remained.
That had been a year ago. And — hallelujah — this autumn I found my gaffer-tape sheath still intact, the tree a dense little cloud of evergreenery. My heart leapt. As I knelt in my smart suit to check the tape, the conference, the speeches, the issues, the personalities, seemed to float away. In truth, at the 31st Lib Dem conference I’ve attended, politics itself was floating away. Maybe Prospero, preparing to break his staff as his world dissolved, felt like this.
Making my way back to the station one night, I passed a down-and-out who had picked up a big seagull with a broken wing, and was hugging it to his grimy breast. One doubts either could do the other any good; the encounter was meaningless; but as I observed the two broken creatures I felt again the pull of the current out to sea.
Labour’s conference in Liverpool a week later was at least theoretically more important. How was the battle going between Corbyn-ite Labour and most of the party’s MPs? How were those wicked trolls and cyberbullies in Momentum doing? It matters. I needed to know.
Well, I went to the speeches in the conference hall but to me the atmosphere seemed flat. Were these people running out of oomph or was I? So I went to Momentum’s own rival World Transformed conference elsewhere in town, but failed to encounter the ruthless agitators the media had promised: just some friendly young people with an otherworldly view of the possibilities of change. Tramping from fringe to fringe at this, my 31st Labour conference, it was proving difficult to feel engaged: for or against anyone, anything.
Walking wearily back to my hotel one night I heard the shout of my name, and stopped. Three young people — all twenty-somethings — were heading towards me. They had recognised me and wanted to talk.
They were Joe, Maya — and I forget the third. Maya was a CND supporter, and Joe and their friend were keen Corbynites. There was nothing threatening about these ‘activists’, full of goodwill. Friendly but-spirited, we argued for some time. Then I sloped off towards my comfortable hotel and they to whatever cheap digs they’d been able to afford. I was left feeling vaguely guilty. Maya, Joe and co were not chess pieces in a party game, not faceless clay warriors in some Chinese terracotta army; they were humans, with human hopes and idealisms, seeking no advantage. Were their leaders, was politics, was I, feeding off their goodwill? Were we taking them in?
And then Birmingham, the Conservatives, and Mrs May. But I found more that felt human outside the security gates, queueing where the raggle-taggle army of campaigners, protesters, placard-wavers, sleeve-tuggers and lunatics grab their moment to press an idea, a cause or a leaflet on delegates. A middle–aged black woman among them begged me to take her leaflet. Justice was being sought for a British citizen of Ethiopian origin whose family are here. He’d had been unlawfully seized at an airport in Yemen (the leaflet claimed). Andargarchew Tsige is now incarcerated in Ethiopia for speaking and writing against the government.
Ignorant of the background, I take no view. But later, studying the family photograph on the leaflet, I thought I recognised the man’s wife as the woman who had pressed the leaflet on me. Unlike me, she will have bought her own train tickets to Birmingham, to take her chances outside the gates: a real person. Will she ever get her husband back?
Again I felt the world inside those gates drifting away.
But there’s something I haven’t mentioned. On my last night in Liverpool I found myself walking a few paces behind two young men, almost boys still, conference-goers in suits; and noticed they were touching hands. They were proclaiming nothing but they had nothing to hide. I felt happy for them, and remembered those long, dispiriting years when at our party conferences I was the organiser for the Conservative Group for Homosexual Equality. How completely (I reflected) John Major, Tony Blair and David Cameron helped change a losing cause into the life these two youths can hope for.
And I reminded myself at this, my 39th Conservative conference, that politics does matter. I just have to hold on to that.