The Social Market Foundation's Director reports on the memorable debates, distractions and drinking sessionsby Emran Mian / October 4, 2013 / Leave a comment
Vote to scrap the bedroom tax?
I’m not a Liberal Democrat.
It’s wrong, it breaks up families. Scrap it now.
I’m sorry, I can’t vote in there.
Sign here to save the NHS?
I’m not a Labour Party member.
Stop the courts from stealing kids?
Umm, same answer.
Stop the cuts?
Why are you filming me?
We’re filming all the Tory scum.
I’m not a Conservative Party member.
Yeah, right. I see your badge.
Take action on UN-run concentration camps?
I’m not a Liberal Democrat. Wait, what?
Don’t work. Get a life.
Thanks, that’s a good idea.
I’m going to Fujitsu. Have you been to Fujitsu?
Turn left before you get to Lomond. You know, after Boden. It’s the end of the corridor.
Have they got wifi? Total Politics has wifi.
Yeah, I heard that. Where is it?
The exhibition area. But you need to have booked it. If you see Microsoft, you’ve gone too far.
Maybe I should catch the Energy Reception.
We could do that and then The Health Hotel.
Do we have time? There’s the business reception later in the Glasgow Science Museum, Whispering Dishes room. IOD, BCC, LTOM.
Is that across the river?
Outside the secure zone.
These have been the geographies of my last three weeks. The spaces I imagined – the party conferences – for ten years as a civil servant have become real in a blitz of Exchange 2, Cobden 3, Central 7, Radisson Pankhurst, Grand Dee, Glyndebourne 1, the Freedom Room, SECURE, NON-SECURE, Breakfast Provided, Refreshments Available. I wasn’t allowed to go to the conferences before, civil service impartiality provided the cordon sanitaire, though typically I’d be connected to a Minister or Special Adviser at some point during the season to fact check something, by text message or email, to ensure that the Government’s position was never knowingly mis-described.
At the other end of those rushed communications, I imagined a moment later that the Minister would step into a crowded fringe meeting and during a free exchange of political views insert a stat or two – my marginal contribution – but only marginal, because the real subject matter was ‘Progressivism’ or ‘Economic Liberalism’, different ideas of freedom, competing readings of history, contested notions of the state.
Okay, fine, I wasn’t necessarily that naïve. But three weeks of party conferences attended in my new role as the director of a think tank have nevertheless delivered me for the first time into “total politics”.
Sometimes fringe meetings are crowded. Ministerial Q&A with Lord McNally and Jeremy Browne was crowded. Reason and Emotion in Politics was crowded. Lessons from the Recession was crowded.
Why can’t we do what the Irish did?
I’m sorry, sir. You’ll have to be more specific. What did the Irish do?
They cut public sector wages. They cut them. There was no bleating about it. There was a little bit of bleating about it. But they just did it. Now look at them. That’s what we need to do.
What should the Conservatives do about child poverty wasn’t crowded. What should Labour do about civil liberties wasn’t crowded. What should Liberal Democrats do about childcare might have been crowded. It was at 8am, I didn’t make it. I stayed too late at Liberals In Communications the night before.
After Liberals In Communications I retrieved my parents’ car. My first ever party conference, the Liberal Democrats 2013 Stronger Economy Fairer Society, was on home turf, in Glasgow where my parents live. They had left town. I had their car. I paid for a car park token and held it between my teeth. My hands were full with pamphlets and business cards. To my right was the beaten metal hulk of the Glasgow Science Museum. On the other side was BBC Scotland. I had a car park token in my mouth. Did I say that? It’s significant, because next I saw Paddy Ashdown. That’s Paddy Ashdown, I thought, from POLITICS. I would love to speak to Paddy Ashdown. But he veered sharply away from me. Right. Because I had a car park token in my mouth.
We can’t hear you in the back. Stop talking to the panel. Talk to us.
Is this better?
What about now?
Speak up. It’s not that hard.
This was my first experience of chairing a fringe meeting. There was a big camera in front of me, three journalists I recognised from TELEVISION standing at the back and next to me: Danny Alexander MP, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, whom I kept telling myself I must not call ‘The Chief’, which is how he was known to me two short weeks before when I was still a civil servant; Jo Johnson MP, policy chief at No10; Frances O’Grady General Secretary TUC, whom politely had claimed she didn’t remember me from a TUC meeting back in 2008 when I was working for then Secretary of State John Denham and he took the view within Frances’ earshot that I had botched a statistic that he had just used in front of a large audience.
Speak up. You have a microphone in front of you, son. There’s no excuse.
At least it was a crowded room. And my mouth was empty of metal discs.
But you can’t generalise, can you?
Old man like you can generalise.
It’s young people and their tablets isn’t it?
You want to be careful how you say that. Tablets meant something else when you were a student.
What I’m saying is it’s all changing isn’t it?
Is it getting a bit much for you?
It’s just the kids you see nowadays they’re much smarter than we were when we were their age. You remember?
Aye, I remember. Is your memory going? Is that it? Bet they were smarter than you though. Speak for yourself.
No, but seriously.
Aye, but seriously.
You know what I mean?
Totally, they’d tan our asses now, so they would.
Aye, you wish.
Ach, see what we’ve descended to here. Tanning asses. What’s the topic we’re supposed to be discussing?
Small businesses and business lending. Exports.
Are you from the party then? Are you a Lib Dem?
Let me place the conversation: OUTSIDE the secure zone, the only fringe event all week with Glaswegians in it, two lawyers who had gone to the same law school as me, with a glint in their eye now that I had interrupted their jiving flow.
So, are you a Lib Dem?
I run a think tank.
A what now?
I had been to Brighton before, but barely. I spoke to a support group for adults with autism around the time my first book was published (my book was about adults with autism). I arrived at the station, they picked me up and we talked about autism on the way to the meeting room, we talked some more about it when we got there, and then they walked me back to the station, while we talked about autism too.
The Labour Party conference in Brighton was a bit more like that former trip to Brighton for me than the Liberal Democrats conference. The Liberal Democrats are a party. Labour is a movement. Even the name of the thing doesn’t need a definite article. It’s Labour. It’s very rarely The Labour Party. The difference runs deeper too. Liberal Democrats have debates on the floor of the conference. Labour does that, but actually it doesn’t have to, it’s a movement, and it’s always moving by talking. Every conversation I had with a Labour member in Brighton mentioned a recent occasion that they had spoken to someone in the Movement about the issue we were talking about, and looked forward to a future occasion when they were going to talk more to someone in the Movement about it. Sometimes the past conversation might have taken place as long ago as 1982, as far away as Bury or Cardiff, sometimes the future conversation hadn’t been scheduled, but it was pretty clear that it was going to happen, somewhere and somehow, because this was a movement and it moved by talking.
Are you going to the New Statesman party tonight? It’s THE party tonight. Everyone goes. Chuka Umunna’s going to be there.
Okay, see you there?
Reason and Emotion in Politics was crowded. My former boss John Denham gave me a nod from the panel. I was standing at the back. David Goodhart and Jonathan Portes didn’t have an argument. Everyone in the room understood that they had been arguing and that further conflict was possible, perhaps even desirable. Rowenna Davis, who is standing for John Denham’s seat at the next election – not against him to be clear, he’s stepping down – said that politics needs more reason AND more emotion. An elderly woman at the front turned to the rest of the room and nodded very firmly and we wondered whether she was Rowenna Davis’ grandmother. The room was very warm. Young Labour people crowded in, drank a glass of wine, and left again. A woman asked a question, “I’m a member of the GMB union,” she said, “and I hire sex for a living”. Her question was unclear. But it seemed important that she was a member of the union. Eventually we left to go to the New Statesman party.
Chuka Umunna’s outside.
Okay, do you want a drink?
I’m going to the bar.
He’s with some other people.
Do you want to talk to him?
What do you mean? He’s Chuka Umunna! He’s with some other people.
Right, and he’s smoking.
I think he’s smoking. Wait, I’ll go and check.
We didn’t speak to Chuka Umunna. But my conversant regularly went to check on whether he was with other people or indeed whether he was smoking. She’s standing for election soon. I think it was a role modelling thing.
At the Labour Party conference I chaired a reception for the Aviation industry. I told an anecdote about aircraft leasing contracts. I think that’s all there is to say about that. The Shadow Transport Secretary, Maria Eagle gave a good speech. It was short. There was lots of booze. She understands the fringe better than me.
The SECURE zone at the Liberal Democrat and Conservative Party 2013 conferences consisted of a hotel communicating with a conference centre. Entry was regulated by private security hosted in marquees. The bottlenecks thereby created were the opportunities for external political expression to manifest itself, like the guy at the Lib Dems who told me about UN-run concentration camps and the guy at the Tories who told me to get a life – in fact I believe he told every entrant the same thing. There was a woman at the Tories whose kids had been forcibly taken by the courts, she said, possibly while she was still pregnant, but she didn’t want to speak personally to anyone. She had a loudspeaker. She liked staying behind the loudspeaker.
At Labour the SECURE zone was more of a conceptual space. The fringe was spread out across several hotels facing the sea and you passed in and out of security perhaps a dozen times per day sometimes without noticing.
My favourite stopping point in the penumbra between SECURE and NON-SECURE was the New Coffee Club, a private institution, like a truly private one, a business in its own right, rather than a private institution sponsoring a private-like institution – The Fujitsu Lounge, The Heathrow Lounge – making it seem like a public one by virtue of being a part of the official fringe. There were lots of fringe coffee experiences. And drinks experiences, which I think outside the SECURE zone are probably regarded as lobbying but take a different character inside the fringe as journalists mix with politicians who mix with think tank people who mix with charity people who mix with PRs from other companies and in the mix it comes out alright because actually it’s more diverse than any other coffee or drinks experience in a political neighbourhood and certainly you can’t say anything creepy or democracy-corrupting because there’s a dozen people eavesdropping.
The presence of Lounges does something to people though, when they find themselves on the other side of the SECURE boundary in a place like the New Coffee Club, like a genuine café. There are transitional issues that have to be managed patiently by the waiting staff.
Do you serve coffee?
Can I order a coffee?
What kinds of coffee do you have?
Do you have tea?
Do you have menus?
Can I order some food?
Can I have like a pastry?
Is there a bill for this or what do I do?
Are you open when the conference isn’t here?
Most businesses in Brighton are open when the conference isn’t there, no surprise, but it becomes hard to believe it when you keep entering and emerging from the SECURE zone, inside which refreshments are set out on tables and you take what you can find and, when you can’t find anything, that’s it the refreshments are finished, it’s time to find a different fringe event. The NON-SECURE zone isn’t like that and pretty quickly it feels less real than the SECURE one.
Chuka Umunna may or may not have been at the New Statesman party – my conversant was unreliable on this issue, I believe – and he may or may not have been smoking. In fact politicians for the most part are pretty scarce at the conferences. They speak briefly in the main conference hall. They speak at some fringe events, though they are rarely able to linger. This means that party conferences are primarily an opportunity to speak to the other members of our public sphere – that’s right, the people you follow on Twitter. They’re here and they’re happy to talk to you. But there are only two principal topics of conversation.
What do you think they’re going to brief out tonight before the speech?
Do you think there will be another coalition in 2015?
Prior to arriving at the conferences, I had given zero or minimal thought to these issues. Now I can do a blog on either one, no problem.
But I wonder if this is something of a shame. There are tens of fringe events at the conferences, perhaps hundreds at the two larger ones. Half a news cycle away from the next politician’s speech, twenty months before a general election, the conversation might want to sound a bit different.
In the end, the narrowing isn’t just to those two big questions, it’s also to a relatively small set of topics or policy choices, exactly those which politicians have said they’re thinking about. This is practical, of course. Everyone wants to make an impact. So it’s a good start to talk about the stuff that the top politicians are talking about too. Have they picked the right issues though? Could we be setting those issues more in context? Could we deliberately talk about some completely different issues and see what happens?
There are three sources of welfare for the individual. The market, which is where you go to find a job or set up in business for yourself. The state, as a provider of public services and financial assistance potentially when times are tough. And the family, which we – the Social Market Foundation, my think tank – think has been under-studied compared to the other two. We put the question of the family’s role on the table in fringe events at each of the party conferences. Simon Hughes MP aced it in Glasgow for the Liberal Democrats. Kate Green MP aced it in Brighton for Labour. Damian Hinds MP aced it in Manchester for the Conservatives. So maybe this is the thing. We track what the politicians are saying on issues because the ones who make it, who rise through the ranks of their parties to win candidature and then election, they’re really good at thinking about them.
Facing off to the SECURE zone at the Conservative Party For Hardworking Families 2013 conference was the Freedom Room, located in a concert hall. I listened to a panel discussion on reforming corporate taxation in the Freedom Room, except reforming was code for abolishing. I have libertarian – what, tendencies? – is that the best thing to call them? Many of my friends are genuine social democrats or soft economic liberals and they stare at me when my libertarian – what, instincts? – is that the best thing to call them? ooze out in conversation. I liked the Freedom Room. It’s a collaboration between organisations like the Taxpayers’ Alliance, Get Britain Out (you know the rest) and more marginal lobbying organisations, for example, one that would reform the Commonwealth.
In the Freedom Room, they were talking about issues that were different and in a way that was different from any of the three SECURE zones. I was enjoying that, though disagreeing with a lot of what was said. And certainly at the Conservative Party conference the Freedom Room was probably the only place where there was some sympathy for Ed Miliband’s bold announcement that a future Labour government would challenge the big energy companies. In the Freedom Room, it was fine, i.e. non-Stalinist, to suggest that there might be a failure of competition in that market and competition must always be sought and sustained.
Eventually though I had to accept something very sad about the Freedom Room. For the first day and a half at the Conservative Party conference, I kept passing a hand over my hair or producing a handkerchief to check whether my nose was clean when it happened. Then I spent a further half-day convincing myself that no, it couldn’t be true. Unfortunately, after two days of the same thing continuing to happen, I had to tell myself what it was, something that hadn’t happened to me in years, perhaps as long as a decade: seeing people do a double-take when they saw a brown face. Yes, you are brown, the second look seemed to say, and yes you are here, at our conference. There was no hostility in it, only surprise, but I suppose it’s me too, I’ve forgotten that there are places in the country where a brown face is a surprising discovery.
There’s one other big difference between the Conservative Party conference and the others. It’s connected to the fact that delegates come from non-metropolitan parts of the country. The Tories talk about agriculture and they talk about food. They also pay some attention to eating it.
At the Liberal Democrats conference, it was almost impossible to find food, and certainly there was no one to talk to about it. Stranded in the conference centre, we grasped at sandwiches and chocolate bars. Labour was better, all along the seafront there were cafes, but it was food that came from freezers and occasionally direct from the sea. At the Conservative Party conference, every café in the conference centre had a bowl of fresh fruits. There were canapés at events. There were farmers among the delegates. Someone left a coat behind at one of our events, and of course it was a Barbour. There was a Harvey Nichols stall, selling mostly food and drink items, in the exhibition area.
My conference season ended with a reprise of the very first event I had chaired. Jo Johnson, a Conservative MP and Minister, had travelled to the Liberal Democrats conference for the discussion on the economy. Danny Alexander, a Liberal Democrat MP and Minister, returned the favour coming to Manchester for our “closer:, sharing the panel with Oliver Letwin – and Frances O’Grady again.
This time I spoke clearly into the microphone. This time I didn’t ask gallery-pandering questions in the style of a would-be political journalist. That’s not what I am. That wasn’t the occasion. Instead I watched mostly while three very serious political thinkers engaged with the difficult economic issues ahead of us prompted by me and the audience. At one point, Oliver Letwin declared that it was possible – of course it was possible, he said – for the public sector to do more with less. Before anyone could challenge this truism, he proceeded to give two examples, spanning the next ten minutes, where he had studied the possibility of increasing public sector productivity and what he had found out.
I’ve been at three party conferences in three weeks and, while it’s fashionable in the Westminster village to say that it was a bore and a drag and an exhausting cavalcade, actually I can’t wait to go back next year. Our political discourse is better than we sometimes want to say. And, when we disagree with its conclusions, there are serious politicians we can talk to about it. Now that’s a surprise.