Tuesday morning's session at the Labour Party Conference last week went totally unreported. On BBC Parliament, the titles said: 'Delegates are taking part in a debate about conference arrangements' – in other words, 'don't watch this'. But it was the most eventful discussion of the week. Successive delegates took to the stage to protest against the exclusion from the agenda of the crisis in Gaza. Conference rules allow eight 'contemporary motions' to be discussed – four chosen by local party branches, four by trade unions – but the Conference Arrangements Committee insists that if the same topic is chosen by both, fewer than eight motions will be discussed. Before the conference each year, unions agree their four choices among themselves. Perhaps not aware they were guaranteed to be on the agenda regardless, party members voted to prioritise the railways and low pay. Though Gaza came squarely in the top eight, it was not in either section's top four, and it was shoved off; conference would only discuss six issues.

Rank and file members also protested against the exclusion of an emergency resolution on nuclear weapons. The CAC chair, Harry Donaldson, was unfazed: 'Emergency motions have been considered by the CAC and none were deemed to be an emergency and will now not be timetabled for debate. The afternoon session will of course be devoted to the leader's speech.'

The conference used to be ordinary members' annual chance to speak up against the front bench. When Denis Healey made his speech in 1976 on Britain's economic woes, he had to put his hand up from the floor, and like any other delegate was given only three minutes. In 1960, Hugh Gaitskell was committed to what he called the 'suicidal path of unilateral disarmament'. He vowed to 'fight and fight again', but didn't think of trying to simply overrule the vote.

Labour conferences these days are a very different spectacle. Last year, delegates voted for an incoming Labour government to take the Royal Mail back into public ownership; the shadow business secretary, Chuka Umunna, immediately told assembled reporters he would do no such thing. But it was surprising the motion even got heard: this year the Conference Arrangements Committee ruled out contemporary and emergency motions on the NHS and ongoing division in the Tower Hamlets Labour Party as well as Trident. Officials say the conference can't discuss issues that have already been deliberated on by the National Policy Forum. The front bench do not have to abide by any such rule. Ann Black, National Executive Committee member, pointed out that Ed Balls's announcement of a cap on child benefit completely bypassed all official policy-making channels.

The Campaign for Labour Party Democracy has calculated that motions and delegates' contributions now take up only 18 per cent of conference time. The rest of the agenda is filled with platform speeches, video presentations and sofa discussions with participants hand-picked by party officials. Delegates' train fares and hotels don't come cheap for cash-strapped party branches, and many have decided it's not worth it. In 2012, only three-quarters of constituencies sent a delegate, down from 83 per cent the previous year.

The CLPD has launched a 'charter for a democratic conference', demanding delegates get a fair hearing. Others say Labour shouldn't go back to the divisive days of making policy at conference; the 'new politics' is better served by the consensus decision-making of the National Policy Forum, which meets in secret. I went the NPF's July meeting at the Open University in Milton Keynes to get an idea of how it worked, even though journalists aren't officially invited. Ahead of the meeting I was shown the hundreds of policy amendments that had been tabled by local branches and trade unions. But for the first two days, there were no votes – only compromises on 'consensus wording'. The conference centre had the spirit of an extended dinner party, with guests taken to one side every now and then by senior MPs and pressured to sign dubious-looking bits of paper. At 10 o'clock on the Saturday night, as delegates uncorked yet another bottle of free wine, I saw two stubborn reps head off for a final sideroom showdown with a frontbencher. By Sunday morning, only one issue was put to the vote.

Last Tuesday, party officials were visibly ruffled by delegates' rediscovered enthusiasm for democracy. Ellie Reeves, in the chair, called a vote on whether to proceed with the day's business or 'reference back' the agenda to the Conference Arrangements Committee with the demand that Gaza be discussed. The show of hands was too close to call. Delegates can request a card vote, and began to shout out for one. Viewers on BBC Parliament (still available on iPlayer) could clearly hear the Labour political strategist Greg Cook, sitting next to Reeves and acting as a supposedly impartial clerk, interfering with the chairing of the session by repeatedly saying: 'That's carried.' Reeves tried to carry on with the session, but delegates got rowdy, and she gave in to demands for a card vote against the judgment of the man on her left. Delegates voted narrowly against reference back, though a small margin of trade union reps voted in favour. Self-assertion has its limits, even in the people's party.