Brighton, England

The first thing I saw when I walked through the labyrinth of security checkpoints at the annual Labour Party Conference here was a young man in a black CBGBs T-shirt and baggy jeans on a big video screen talking about Iraq. By the time I reached the main floor he was just coming through the doorway. “Weren’t you just speaking in the debate about the war?” I asked. “Which side were you on?”

“Supporting the reconstruction of Iraq,” he said.

“What about the motion to set a date for withdrawal?”

“Oh, we were against that,” said Matt Keeler from Romford, who though personally opposed to the war had indeed just told the delegates that “withdrawal of troops in Iraq would be a criminal betrayal of the responsibility we owe to the Iraqi people.”

I’d been misled by Keeler’s costume, but his fidelity to the script shouldn’t have come as a surprise–this was a conference where no detail of presentation was left to chance, speakers remained relentlessly “on message” and the few outlets for dissent were as carefully choreographed as any Soviet-era festival of unity. One delegate who refused to join in the customary standing ovation following Prime Minister Tony Blair’s speech and instead held up a sheet of paper saying I’m Sitting Down for Peace was forcibly removed from the hall by police.

Outside the conference hall the news was dominated by the fate of Kenneth Bigley, the British engineer taken hostage in Baghdad. Inside, until the very last day, the Labour Party leadership stuck firmly to what might be called the Basil Fawlty doctrine: Don’t Mention the War. Some 200,000 members (about half the party) have already quit, but Tony Blair’s grudging act of contrition–“I can apologize for the information that turned out to be wrong, but I can’t, sincerely at least, apologize for removing Saddam”–wasn’t aimed at them. Nor was Shanaz Rashid’s plea: “Please do not desert us in our hour of need.” Rashid, an Iraqi Kurd who mysteriously arrived at the conference podium in the middle of the one, very brief scheduled debate on Iraq, may well have been intended as a counter to Bigley’s brother, who’d appeared on Al Jazeera the previous day urging Blair to withdraw from Iraq. “We don’t understand the criticism of your Prime Minister,” Rashid told the delegates with an obvious sincerity only slightly undercut by her failure to mention the fact that her husband is a member of the current Iraqi provisional government.

Not that such histrionics were necessary. These were, after all, the people who hadn’t left the party over the war. And the four big unions, who among them controlled 40 percent of conference votes (some of whom had passed their own motions calling for withdrawal of British forces), had already agreed to back the government on Iraq in return for promises on workers’ rights and pensions during Labour’s third term.

Indeed, it is the inevitability of that third term that, along with Labour’s huge majority in the current Parliament, has contributed so much to the frozen, unreal air of British politics. The vast majority of the British people never supported going to war in the first place, yet once British troops commenced hostilities even Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader who’d led parliamentary opposition to the war, fell in line behind the government.

Blair’s presidential style has left Parliament itself looking more and more irrelevant. And the media–still smarting from the aftermath of the death of weapons expert David Kelly, over which minor errors in the BBC’s reporting ended up costing both the BBC chairman and the director general their jobs–seem reluctant to challenge the government directly. Instead there is the usual partisan sniping, instantly discounted by both the government and the public, and the endless, obsessive soap opera of Blair’s relationship with Chancellor Gordon Brown, his former rival and presumptive heir.

With the main stages of Parliament and the press off-limits, politics hasn’t disappeared. Instead it has gone underground, surfacing in some bizarre places. Early last month a divorced dad in a Spider-Man suit climbed to the top of the giant London Eye Ferris wheel to protest unfair custody procedures–the same cause that saw a protester dressed as Batman scale the balcony at Buckingham Palace a few days later. On September 17 some 20,000 demonstrators filled the streets outside Parliament storming barricades and trading blows with police. Their cause? The government’s decision to finally keep a campaign promise to ban fox hunting. Five of the pro-hunting activists managed to storm the Commons chamber itself, shouting slogans at astonished MPs until they were arrested by the sergeant-at-arms and his tailcoat-clad assistants (universally known as “the men in tights”). When debate resumed, the hunting ban passed by nearly 200 votes.

What matters is not the underlying politics–though the pro-hunting camp has some good libertarian arguments, their defense of “a way of life” rings hollow when so many of them cheered on Margaret Thatcher’s destruction of Britain’s coal mining communities, and not all of the caped crusaders are model fathers–but the impotent rage and the resort to spectacle. The one thing that unites hunt protesters and the antiwar movement is a sense of deep disenfranchisement. We can’t vote Blair out–his surprise announcement, on the last day of the Labour conference, that he will resign at the end of his next term in office was a superb coup de théâtre, knocking Iraq and Ken Bigley clean off the front pages, as well as a reminder that Blair’s power has become personal, no longer a gift of the party. And we can’t vote for anyone who’ll stop the war. It hardly seems worth going to demonstrations (which didn’t stop the war anyway).

Instead we go to the theater, where our failures are reflected back to us as tragedy. There is a riveting moment in Stuff Happens, David Hare’s new play at the National Theatre about the buildup to Iraq, when the actors playing Dick Cheney, Colin Powell and George W. Bush debate the usefulness of their British ally. “This guy is putting himself halfway between American power and international diplomacy,” Cheney explains, the contempt in his voice practically choking him. “And sorry–that’s a place where people get mashed.” Powell argues that Blair “has been loyal from the start,” but Cheney insists that “we don’t need him.” In the end, Bush agrees to go back to the United Nations–for Blair’s sake: “If he’s not pro-American, he’s nothing. Look at it his way round. He’s staked the house. He’s not going to quit. On the other hand, his government can fall.”

Blair isn’t going to quit–at least not yet. And the return of the unions to prominence means that, on domestic questions, a Labour government may have to deliver more than just a ban on fox hunting. But the war still overshadows all other questions here, and with no end in sight, no one can even say how much it will cost–in British lives, in British funds, in domestic spending deferred indefinitely. Loyalty is no substitute for power, and right now Britain, like the rest of the world, can only wait till November, and hold its breath.