I listened to Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour party conference while at stool the other day. This was purely serendipitous: a function of the dispensation of my digestion, the location of the lavatory and my wife’s bizarre interest in such things (conference speeches, that is, not my digestion). Not to gross you out or anything, but had I not been so engaged, I doubt I would have managed to concentrate for more than a few seconds – for whatever else Miliband Jr may be, he’s a worthy successor to Tony Blair, that air-guitarist of political rhetoric.
I kept hearing the “new generation” trope come floating up the staircase, and I managed to gather that what the heir to Keir Hardie was saying was that he and whoever joined him would be in the vanguard of this new generation – a bizarre flying picket of progressivism, seizing the centre ground of British politics.
Good luck to them, I say, for capturing this contested territory makes advancing across the no-man’s-land of the Somme in 1916 look like a cakewalk. The sheer press of suited bodies! The murderous enfilades of blandness! If Babyface Ed manages to survive, he’ll be the last man standing on a heap of corpses – the rest of the combatants having bored one another to death. Not, I hasten to add, that you could have guessed any of this, had you stood at the lectern in Manchester and looked out over the assembled delegates. True, not all of their faces were transfigured with joy but, by golly, they were rapt.
How can one account for the madness of this particular crowd? In Swift’s Laputa, persons of quality were attended at all times by “flappers”, whose task it was to provide “external taction upon the organs of speech and hearing” using bladders tied to sticks. Unless the Laputans were so flailed, they were constantly in danger of slipping into reveries about cosmic matters. But delegates to the party conferences seem to manage to speak and listen with no such external aid.
It struck me, listening to the conference delegates “debating” on Newsnight, that at least one explanation for their ability to withstand the sort of Largactil verbiage dished out by Big Nurse Miliband, Dr Cameron and Clegg, the anaesthetist, is that the younger among them have known no other discourse than this bollocks about “service providers” and “stakeholders”. And when it comes to the fatuities of “choice”, these poor lambkins have had no choice. Such youngsters no longer know whether they believe in anything before being afforded the opportunity to ask a selected sample of people like themselves what they believe in. There are no politically engaged young people any more – just focus groups of one.
Which is why, I suppose, the party conferences are an even more attractive gig than ever before: hemmed in on all sides by the zombies of apathy, the ever-diminishing numbers of activists fight a rearguard action as they back towards the electric doors of this or that conference centre. If the condition of modern man and woman is to find oneself hopelessly atomised, then the only safety remains in the crowd.
The crowd in Manchester seemed to have spent a lot of the week looking at a stage set with a curious simulacrum of a television studio – or even a bourgeois living room. This, then, was the condition of democratic socialism: staring at a brightly lit L-plan of leatherette sofas, upon which were poised increasingly exiguous ministers – fading . . . fading . . . fading away into the long shadows of the political wilderness. Because, for many conference delegates, strangers to the factory floor, or the wakes week, or any other form of group endeavour, this was the closest they’d ever been to collectivism. And what a fine madness it was to look upon the Eds and Davids and Frodos (sorry, I meant “Andy Burnham”) while imagining that, as they were so clearly sitting in a living room, you must be sitting there with them.
For that is the final and inescapable madness of the conference: that these people are your friends, your family, even. Ah, well. I suppose the Labour Party can at least comfort itself with this narcissism of small differences – that no matter how bored, bamboozled and benighted it may be, the Tories are always worse.
Now, back to the toilet.
Will Self’s latest novel, Walking to Hollywood, is published by Bloomsbury (£17.99)