I’m writing this from the great city of Birmingham, host to this year’s Conservative Party Conference. For a few days, the ICC has become home to Conservative MPs, councillors and activists – not to mention more journalists and TV crews than you could shake a stick at. There are also lots of representatives from charities and other organisations, taking the opportunity to mingle and debate.
What actually happens at a party conference? What’s the point of them? This year’s conference season has been particularly significant for all political parties as we’re half way through this Parliament.
For us, it’s been time for the whole party to come together and look at what we’ve achieved in Government since 2010 and what remains to be tackled in the run-up to the 2015 General Election. In a way, our conference can be split in two – what goes on in the main halls and what happens at the fringe.
The main arena sees key-note speakers – Government ministers, Boris Johnson etc – mainly reviewing party policy. This year we’ve also heard from Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York City, and Lord Coe.
I gave my own speech on Monday, during the session on ‘Turning Communities Around’, alongside Iain Duncan Smith and Eric Pickles.
I spoke about our continuing aim to create a bigger, stronger society, where people do more together – with each other and for each other. I used the example of ‘Join In’ – the event over the weekend after the Olympics which saw 6,000 sports clubs organising events to encourage local people to get involved.
I also reflected on our reforms of the civil service, the work of the Efficiency and Reform Group and how we’ve been reducing the costs to the public purse of trade unions.
The newspapers and TV news focus on policy announcements and David Cameron’s speech but most conference activity actually takes place at the fringe.
A huge programme of events is staged in and around the secure conference zone. There have been debates, Q&A sessions, receptions and lectures on subjects as diverse as mental health, rural crime, boosting our high streets, special educational needs, climate change and putting patients at the heart of the NHS. It’s an important opportunity to raise awareness of issues, for organisations to get their views across and for members, whatever role they play with the party, to get involved in debate and discussion. So, just like the Edinburgh Festival, it’s the Fringe that many people travelled to Birmingham for.
The experience is one of long, interesting days, filled with intense debate and the result is groups of people, going back to their communities, enthused and re-energised for the return of Parliament.