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Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 October 2006, 17:44 GMT 18:44 UK
Queues at conference
By Sarah Mukherjee
BBC environment correspondent

For many years, as far as I was concerned, the conference season was somebody else's problem.

Sarah Mukherjee
Sarah Mukherjee said her experience was Kafka-esque

Three weeks to get a bit of work on environmental issues done while the news agenda was focussed on various seaside towns around the country.

But as political leaders have fought each other to push environmental matters higher and higher up the agenda, it became increasingly clear that this year, I was going, too.

The first hurdle to cross is the accreditation process. As you will discover, this makes any work you have to do at the conference itself pale into insignificance.

To begin with, each party has a form to fill in, with the obvious stuff (who you are) to the far less obvious - like your driving licence details. Why? Might some of the speakers need a lift?

Now, far be it from me to suggest that the way political parties organise giving out badges is in any way a reflection of how they might - or do - run the country. But these are my three experiences.

Obesity Task Force

The Liberal Democrats sent me an email a few weeks before the conference in Brighton to say my badge was on its way. A week before, I got it in the post.

Outside the conference, I was given a recyclable badge holder by a smiling man with a beard, into which I put my badge. I went in.

Now I accept that the Labour conference in Manchester had to be in a different league when it came to security. And the logistics had obviously also been cleared by the Obesity Task Force, as getting from hotel to conference to fringe groups every day was a journey of several miles on increasingly weary feet. But even so.

On my first day, I was directed from the conference hall to a small point on the horizon. This was the badge issuing centre. I found the office. It was shut, and a long queue was snaking around inside the building. A man with an official's pass came to the front of the queue:

"We're looking for the key," he said. Then another man came. Then two ladies. But no key.

Tony Blair
Tony Blair made his final conference appearance this year

Time passed. Increasingly agitated phone calls were made to the "powers that be" inside by a now mutinous queue. When the key was eventually found, half the people in the queue were told that this was the wrong queue, and they had to queue somewhere else.

I don't know where, I never saw them again. Three hours after first enquiring, I finally got my pass.

I mentioned this to a colleague, expecting her to be shocked. She was. "Three hours! That's amazing!"

"Yes, terrible, isn't it?"

"Terrible? No amazing! How did you manage it so quickly?"

'Surreal experience'

She went on to tell me about the fringe meetings that had to be cancelled because the speakers couldn't get their passes, about people who queued for four hours a day, for three or four days, who kept getting turned away because their passes weren't ready.

One man arrived, queued, missed his event, and went home again.

Indeed, it was the badge queues that were the hot topics of conversation rather than health policy or Tony's speech - well, maybe that's a slight exaggeration.

But the final conference - the Conservatives' in Brighton - provided me with perhaps the most surreal experience, indeed of my entire life.

I did the now traditional Walking for Miles to the Badge Place thing, where I was greeted by a young, smiling man.

"Hello. If you're on the list, you may enter. If not, you will have to wait."

Thinking I had perhaps stumbled on an evangelical meeting by mistake, I checked his badge - which didn't tell me much, as this year the words "Conservative Party" appeared to be entirely missing from conference badges.

Name confusion

However, I followed him to the "list room" and was met by a sight so bizarre that it took me several seconds to process it.

In a large, dimly-lit theatre, hundreds of people sat disconsolately. They were staring at a woman on the stage who was reading a series of names out in a low monotone. The List.

She was on "P".

"But I'm Mukherjee!" I said to the woman next to me: "Does she go back to 'A' when she's finished? How long does that take? Or will I have to come back again tomorrow?" After Manchester, my expectations of entering the conference on the day I arrived were fairly low.

Thank heavens for an unusual surname - "Mukherjee - she just read that out" said a lady with a small child - who may well have been only pregnant when this process had started.

I had begun to feel like I'd fallen into the pages of an unfinished work by Franz Kafka
Sarah Mukherjee

Now, if this had been any other country in Europe, there would have been a riot.

Furious citizens would have ripped up the theatre seats, hurled them at the woman on the stage and stormed the Badge Office, marching to the conference hall singing songs of liberty and fraternity.

But as this was the UK - and Bournemouth - everyone just sat there in silence. Indeed, no-one even made any sort of comment which would suggest this Badge Lottery event was even slightly odd.

By now, it was bucketing down with rain. We, the Chosen Ones, had to go outside, to be met by another smiling young man - smiling, presumably, because he was standing under a giant golf umbrella, and we weren't.

"Are you on The List?"

"I think so."

"Ah - but are you? If you aren't, then you will have to wait."

By now, I had begun to feel like I'd fallen into the pages of an unfinished work by Franz Kafka. So, I fell back on the last refuge of the journalist - and politician. I lied.

"Yes, I'm on the List!"

And mercifully, I was.

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