LONDON — Four days in a stuffy conference center surrounded by political nerds: It’s enough to make lukewarm wine appealing.
“It’s like the Glastonbury festival for intellectuals,” remarked Matthew Torbitt, a Labour adviser, as Britain’s party conference season is currently underway with the Tories meeting in Manchester. Instead of famous music acts and early morning parties, the focus is on serious panel discussions about topics such as High Speed Rail, followed by late-night gatherings fueled by alcohol.
What is the experience of participating in this well-known, alcohol-fueled political event while abstaining from drinking – for reasons such as personal health, religious beliefs, or maintaining mental stability?
“Upon arrival on Sunday, it is common to hear the phrase ‘take it easy tonight, don’t overdo it’ as the conference heavily revolves around alcohol,” stated James Starkie, a former Conservative special adviser who has been attending party conferences for ten years and has been sober for three years.
This will be Torbitt’s first conference without alcohol, as a Labour staffer. However, he is feeling hopeful, yet slightly cautious.
Torbitt is excited to wake up feeling somewhat energized and actually attend early morning events. He believes that alcohol and the constant activity at a party conference can be a risky mix.
“I often found myself laughing,” he remembered. “However, I was also under a lot of stress. I would go crazy and wake up every day wearing the same suit.”
“I may have personal challenges, but based on the individuals around you, it seems to be a common struggle. It appears that you willingly endure this for a week.”
These multi-day gatherings are more than just social gatherings. Trying to assist politicians, gather information, and network effectively can become exhausting.
“I understand that conferences can be overwhelming,” Torbitt shared. “Everyone is busy and their schedules are packed. So I can see why some people choose to put on a brave facade at events, and perhaps a glass of wine or champagne can help make the experience more enjoyable and put them in a social mood.”
Westminster on tour
The conference is, in many aspects, a representation of the drinking culture present in the Westminster bubble, but now transported to a city far from the SW1 area.
According to Starkie, a former advisor to the government, conferences are considered the most important events in Westminster.
In some professions, there is a close overlap between one’s personal and professional life. For instance, those in roles like special advisers or journalists often work until late in the evening, but also have social interactions with colleagues outside of work hours, whether for leisure or work-related purposes. This was described by the speaker as a unique aspect of these professions.
“Sometimes, it can be difficult to distinguish between socializing for work and socializing for personal reasons. This can be especially challenging if you struggle with alcohol consumption and it may lead to negative consequences.”
Starkie described politics as a “strange atmosphere” where drinking plays a significant role in its functioning – whether it be beneficial or detrimental. He acknowledged that the Commons terrace or hotel bar, where attendees gather at party conferences, often becomes the scene of someone’s embarrassing behavior.
Is water okay?
Mark McVitie, a political consultant at Pagefield agency, has been abstaining from alcohol for two years. He acknowledges that the excessive drinking seen at party conferences reflects the larger culture of Westminster, where alcohol plays a significant role.
The communication professional suggests attending conference events where free drinks are provided as a way to stand out and not blend in with others. However, they also express disappointment in the limited choices for non-alcoholic conference attendees.
During a 2021 conference, McVitie encountered a bar that had no non-alcoholic options available. He described this experience as demeaning and exclusionary, making individuals who do not drink feel unworthy and disregarded in terms of accommodations.
There is optimism that the rise in popularity of bold non-alcoholic beverages, such as 0% beers and gins, will also be seen at party conferences. This means that those who opt not to consume alcohol will not have to settle for a glass of orange juice normally served during school lunch hours at 11 p.m.
While attending a conference without consuming alcohol may present challenges, such as temptation or frustration with others’ drunken behavior, McVitie emphasized that abstaining from alcohol does not necessarily lead to a negative experience.
According to him, individuals who choose not to drink can still have a positive conference experience.
The conference attendees who are hungover and returning to London on Wednesday may have something to learn from the sober attendees.