Special report To Manchester, where I had been invited to liven up a Conservative Conference Fringe discussion on digital policy. I shared the panel with influential moderatrix Dominique Lazanski, a former Yahoo!er who recently got the Pirate Party into the Culture Ministry; a young parliamentary candidate called Nick Pickles who had worked with Big Brother Watch; and Jeff Lynn of Coadec, a new group flush with lobbying cash from Google and Yahoo!
I found the whole thing fascinating and very strange for lots of reasons.
First, a bit about the Fringe. The Fringe is much bigger than the conference itself, with dozens of simultaneous talks and panels during the day and piss-ups by night. I believe the Fringe crowd of media, campaigners, lobbyists, NGOs, charities, companies and others outnumbers the conference by almost three to one. Very few seem to set foot in the conference itself – and why would they? The action is all taking place on the periphery.
And why Manchester? That’s quite a surreal choice. There’s a reason the parties traditionally hosted their conferences close to where their base is strongest: the Conservatives were in Eastbourne, while Labour alternated between Blackpool and Brighton. But then Blair began to plant Labour conferences consistently in Tory territory, pushing the Tories up to Labour’s traditional heartlands, where there are big conference centres.
I know Manchester very well, having lived in the city centre for years, a long time ago, back when very few people did. Now thousands do. A huge area had been sealed off with gigantic yellow barriers, stretching from Deansgate to the Central Library to the Britons’ Protection, to prevent truck bombs, presumably. You could through in unimpeded, but all vehicles were absent. So it felt like a catastrophe had hit the town: only lobbyists and the odd lost delegate strolled the vast, mostly deserted exclusion zone. It was like being in a film. 28 Days Later, perhaps. I have a recurring dream of Manchester in which the place looks and feels like Blade Runner – and I’m always looking for a Pakistani curry cafe beneath an aerial tramway close to a dream version of Piccadilly station. But the reality was far, far stranger than dream space.
Outside the Free Trade Hall, a Liverpudlian preacher was ranting about how we’d pay the price for fornication and adultery. Did he have anyone in mind? Was he going to meet Boris?
Now, the fact that the Fringe attracts so many lobbyists is frowned upon – but not by me. I think you have to be clinically insane to join one of major political parties today; you must certainly endure disappointment on a masochistic scale. It makes much more sense to me to join a trade association or a more generic lobby group. As the political (i.e., never-had-a-job) class becomes ever more homogenous, it’s what bright people do now. They lobby. And the internet has lowered the barriers to entry; nobody knows it’s just you in your shed with a few mates. (Here’s the splendid James Firth, IT consultant by day, and one-man lobby group by night – currently seeking Google cash.)
Even stranger was the mood of the Tory supporters now they’re finally in government, but are unable to get very much of what they want. On the big issue of the day, the euro, the rank and file have completely won the day, a quite resounding victory. As Peter Oborne put it recently, not only were the Tory sceptics right on the European currency issue, but “right for the right reasons”. They’ve won on the Human Rights Act, too, popular a couple of years ago but now universally despised by all but a few LibDems.
So you’d think they’d be lording it over the conference. But there are no prizes for being right, they’ve been robbed of their political capital. The leadership isn’t going to oblige them, and throws them a few peanuts instead. The leadership dares them: where else are you going to go? Well, a million of them peeled off to UKIP, which may have cost the Tory Party a majority. As an outsider, this seems to be extremely cynical leadership.
The Tories' roundabout problem
Here’s what I said in a nutshell – then some of the comeback, which got quite lively. On copyright I’d be outnumbered three to one, a better ratio than most of the time. My logic was thus: at least one member of the panel is going to be so angry with me that I’ll probably get punched, so there’s no point beating about the bush.
The Shoreditch "Tech Scene": it's a non-stop social whirl
You all know what an entrepreneur is. But who has heard of the word nontrepreneur?
There were amused and bemused looks.
Well you’re going to be hearing it a lot.
We’re in an exciting time for the internet. This great wave of utopian rhetoric and getting everyone online, for the last 15 years, has come to an end. Almost everyone who wants to be online is online. Something quite new and interesting has happened in the past three years, people are beginning to pay for stuff.
The internet today lacks markets and it’s half-finished. The platforms and infrastructure that recognise and create value aren’t there.
Now words come to define political eras and philosophies, and the last ten years were defined by words like 'beaconicity' and 'targets' and all these agencies spending other people’s money. I have a horrible feeling that Cameron’s technology policy, despite being guided by people with strong classical liberal instincts, will be defined by the fluff of Silicon Roundabout.
Silicon Roundabout is, essentially, a prank on the media. Let’s see who’s involved. You’ve got what I call faux capitalists – people who want to be thought of as capitalists but are terrified of risk and don’t back ambitious high-risk ventures. You’ve got entrepreneurs who can’t run a business. And you’ve got programmers who can’t program. All looking for each other. Then there’s a vast army of hangers-on: mentors, facilitators. And they all socialise endlessly, instead of doing any work. The socialising is work.
This does not create wealth.
As soon as we start to “un-fetishise” this myth of two guys in a garage, and start to think more seriously about, say, payment platforms or credit systems that make buying stuff nice and easy, as easy as real life, then we’ll create markets. You won’t get this from Shoreditch.