This week I attended my first ever Conservative Party Conference (for that matter, my first ever political conference). As a civil servant, these had been strictly off limits, a banned political activity as mysterious and transgressive as they come, so it was with particular excitement that I headed up to Birmingham on Saturday.
Some people, like me, may have absorbed a number of myths about the Conference, based on media reporting; namely, that it is expensive, that it is overly scripted, and that ordinary members are sidelined in favour of lobbyists. All are completely untrue, so I’ll begin with some myth-busting:
Myth 1: It’s expensive. These reports are based on the last minute corporate tickets, which are pricy. But as a members who booked early, I got my ticket for £50. £50 for a four day conference! And my accommodation for the four nights cost just £180 (total), staying in a lovely AirBnB 10 mins walk from Birmingham New Street.
Myth 2: It’s overly scripted. Many reports say things such as the main stage being very formal, with all the activity now on the fringe. Well, it’s true that the main stage is very scripted, but it misses the point that the fringe is an integral part of the conference, inside the secure zone and listed on the conference app, with backbenchers, ministers and cabinet ministers speaking at lively and participatory events.
Myth 3: Members are sidelined in favour of lobbyists. Well, lobbyists are there, but the majority of people I spoke to were members and over 80% of questions asked in the events I attended were asked by members. As an ordinary member I had the opportunity to join policy debates, meet and directly question senior members of the party, right up to cabinet level. Whilst I agree a bit more could be done – in particular, I support the view of one current cabinet minister who said openly that the main programme should include member-votable motions – to say members are sidelined in a gross exaggeration.
So, what was it like? Three and a half days of absolutely packed days of talks, speeches, panel discussions and receptions, buzzing with ideas that would delight any enthusiast of politics or public policy. Topics at the fringe covered a huge range and the opportunity to see – and directly question – MPs, ministers and cabinet ministers openly discussing the big issues was fantastic. Journalists and think tank representatives played a great role at many of the events in stoking the discussion and ensuring the difficult questions got posed.
Almost as important was the opportunity to meet and chat to such a broad range of fellow party members from across the country with such a wide range of views and experiences. I met new and experienced councillors, candidates, activists and even the founder of the (unofficial) Jacob Rees-Mogg appreciation society whilst learning a lot, picking up campaigning tips and making new friends and connections.
Most importantly, though, it reconfirmed my view that the Conservative Party is the party I want to belong to and to campaign and fight for. No-one ever agrees with absolutely every aspect of government policy and MPs in any party represent a broad church – but it was tremendously inspiring at Conference to hear MP after MP, from the back-benches to the Cabinet, stand up to make a passionate case for the values I believe in: personal, political and economic liberty; free markets; opportunity for all; fairness, personal aspiration, support for ordinary working families, and an approach that treats people as individuals; and being willing to speak out against state control, excessive borrowing, identity politics, corporatism and the increasing government interference in all aspects of individual and family life.
My personal conference highlights included:
– Priti Patel talking about the future of Conservatism, covering Brexit, standing up for individual and economic freedoms and a property owning democracy.
– Liz Truss calling for radical free market disruption from the heart of the Treasury.
– David Davis in conversation, coming across as incredibly genuine and down to earth.
– Sam Gyimah giving an impassioned defence of freedom of speech and challenging the academic monoculture.
– Hearing Boris speak for the first time.
– Dancing Queen.
– Jesse Norman demonstrating his sage-like knowledge of Adam Smith.
– Ben Bradley, Lee Rowley and Rebecca Lowe defending the need for free markets, challenging corporatism and in defence of individual freedoms.
Overall, a stimulating and inspiring conference: I’ll definitely be back next year.