Manchester, Politics

5 things I learnt at the Conservative Party Fringe meetings

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By David Keyworth
Photography: Nguyen Bui Vu

When I heard that the Conservative Party Conference was coming to Manchester Central, I felt a bit like a life-long vegan, told that McDonalds was holding a burger festival in Whitworth Park.

Having previously done freelance reporting at the Labour Party Conference fringe, I was offered the same work at the Conservative fringe. My reflex reaction to this was ‘No’.

Then, I started to assess it more rationally. I would not have to wear a conference pass (even a media one) as the fringe meetings take place the other side of the blue lines and the security-turnstiles. Secondly, I realised that lots of left-leaning journalists – more accomplished than me – attend all the party conferences, as part of their jobs. Thirdly, like an atheist with a Saturday-job at a religious bookshop, I needed the extra money.

Nearly all the meetings had a Conservative MP or minister on the panel and some were organised by right-leaning think-tanks, like Bright Blue. But some of the meetings were organised by left-of-centre publications, like the New Statesman. Equally, all the panelists included business people, professionals, academics and representatives from campaign groups. Equally, as Jacob Rees-Mogg MP discovered, not everyone in the audience is a political cheerleader.

Here are five things I learnt at Conservative Party fringe meetings.

1. Renewable energy and energy price caps are no longer ‘Marxist ideas’ to Conservatives

At a meeting on industrial strategy, Conservative MP, John Penrose  said: “The energy market is pretty rubbish”, adding that “it is not good for us as consumers.”

Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Minister Greg Clark  said a commitment to environmentalism is “absolutely part of mainstream Conservatism.”

Let’s see what they deliver.

2. Cybercrime raises questions about regulation and civil liberties

Security Minister Ben Wallace said that there had been a “quite shocking lack of responsibility” by some businesses and organisations with respect to cybercrime. He added that the first response of some major companies, after a security breach, had been to protect shareholders, rather than customers.

Wallace pointed to what he saw as an anomaly – private companies had been able to bulk-buy and supply personal data but the UK state had been “properly regulated” on issues of using personal data. Can the state increase access to personal data without misusing it? Perhaps eternal vigilance is the price of liberty and keeping ourselves safe online.

3. Banks are paying more attention to mental health issues

The ninth floor of One St Peter’s Square and a very long boardroom table was the lofty venue for a meeting, attended by representatives from banks and charities. The immaculately dressed man on the ground floor directed me to a lift and swiped a card at it.  “There are no buttons. It’s the future”, he told me.

Increasing openness about mental health problems seems to have impacted on High Street banks relationship to their customers. The bank representatives outlined their policies on helping vulnerable customers.

Dr Moira Fraser, from Macmillan Cancer Support, summed up well when she said that there was a challenge for the voluntary sector to work together with the financial sector and a challenge for the financial sector not to leave all the problems to the voluntary sector.

4. Charity only goes so far

Chair of Social Enterprise UK and Crossbench peer, Lord Victor Adebowale spoke at a meeting entitled Devolution, Philanthropy and Civic Renewal, at Friends Meeting House. He said, “Philanthropy is at best a catalyst” and “we should have a bigger vision in the twenty first century”.

5. I’m still not a Conservative but not all Conservatives are evil

Two of the ministers – Greg Clark and  Ben Wallace – showed a strong grasp of the matters they presided over. There were times when they evaded pointed questions but this was probably as much to do with collective cabinet responsibility as a lack of personal opinions.

I’d recommend going to fringe meetings next time a party conference is held in Manchester. Away from the conference slogans and the media preoccupation on who will replace Theresa May, the fringe meetings allow for more nuanced debates. There are precious few opportunities to put questions directly to those in power.

The desire for democratic accountability was what, after all, brought thousands of peaceful protestors to St Peter’s Square in 1819. The troops and their Conservative law-makers of the time turned it into the Peterloo Massacre. But the tide of public opinion had turned and the right to peacefully protest and hold those in power to account were just two of its legacies.

David Keyworth is an MA Creative Writing student, specialising in poetry

About the author / 

David Keyworth

David Keyworth recently completed his MA Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. He previously won a new poet’s bursary in the Northern Writers' Awards (New Writing North). His debut pamphlet 'The Twilight Shift' is available from WildPressed Books Find more of his work here:

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