Conservative Diary

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Three cheers for the Freedom Zone - the home of the real conference fringe

By Jonathan Isaby

Picture 1 There was by all accounts more action on the fringe at this year's Conservative conference than ever before: 420 meetings as compared with 371 last year in Manchester.

But as the old adage goes, quantity does not necessarily outdo quality and I fear that vast swathes of the fringe meetings have become depressingly anodyne and corporate these days.

Compared with when I started attending the conference in the late 1990s, so many of the meetings now seem packed with lobbyists, interest groups and vested interests wanting to fight their corner - both in the audience and on the panels themselves as well.

With all vestiges of debate long since disappeared from the main conference hall itself, the fringe is the only opportunity for a bit of robust policy discussion among party members.

And with that sorely absent from so much of the fringe programme now, there is all the more reason to celebrate the one place on the fringe where ordinary members were taking part in no holds barred debates about a variety of issues: The Freedom Zone (click here to see the full list of events), as put together by Simon Richards and the Freedom Association.

Yet again, Simon this year assembled a full two-day programme at a venue a stone's throw from the main conference centre featuring a string of refreshingly open debates - with a number of top-notch speakers - which were full of ordinary party members: the good old-fashioned fringe as I remember it. So three cheers for the Freedom Zone, without which the fringe would be a far more tedious place.


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