The last time I attended Labour Party Conference was also at Brighton but in 2000. I wrote and performed an ensemble political cabaret show at The Greys pub to an audience of party delegates and apparatchiks escaping the conference proper. Among the cast of 4 of The Soapbox Cabaret that night was a young up-and-coming comedian, Russell Brand.
So it was fitting that on my return to Conference that Russell should be there – but this time not performing The Song of the Spin Doctor dressed half in drag, but speaking soberly at a morning meeting about Addiction alongside Labour’s Shadow Health Spokesperson John Ashworth. The most notable thing that has changed in those 17 years though, wasn’t me or Russell, but the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.
Admittedly I avoided the actual Conference and stuck to Momentum’s brilliant fringe event, The World Transformed. Even the most tedious sounding events had queues stretching around the block like a gig by the hot new band or the release of a Triple A console game – except it was a bunch of people you’d barely heard of debating how to build stronger links with the Trade Unions. Chunky Mark, The Artist Taxi Driver, said “it’s a Conference but it’s like a f*cking festival mate”, when I interviewed him in the street outside a massively oversubscribed event where scores of people were turned away.
At an evening event, Governing from the Radical Left, John McDonnell was greeted onstage with a standing ovation. Paul Mason prowled the space like a glowering rock star. McDonnell summed it up best when he said the Party felt optimistic once more (when was the last time?).
When I’d decided to max out my credit card all those years ago to take a comedy show to the Labour Party Conference (I ran the show for a week in Bournemouth the previous year, 1999, also starring Russell) it came out of the frustration of my first Conference in 1997 as an international delegate. The first Conference after the landslide General Election victory that had returned Labour to power after 18 dismal, divisive, bitter years. It should have been a massive party, a celebration – there should have been a sense of optimism. But there was none – just a dampening of expectations. On Monday it felt like the carnival had finally arrived in Brighton, 20 years late, not to celebrate a victory, but to prepare for one.