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Monday
Oct222012

Towards a more liberal political culture

I love the Barbican. Always have.

Most West End theatres were built in the 19th or early 20th centuries. Standing in a hot, crowded foyer before a show is bad enough but that's only the start of a miserable physical experience.

The tiny bars are equally claustrophobic and are only suitable for those who enjoy very close proximity to strangers. You need to order your interval drinks in advance because the chances of fighting your way to the bar and being served before the beginning of the next act are very small indeed.

Even if you have pre-ordered your drinks there won't be anywhere to sit and at least half your gin and tonic will end up on your shoes after your elbow has been jogged for the umpteenth time.

There is no relief at any stage (no pun intended) because once in the auditorium you are forced to sit in a cramped and uncomfortable seat that may (or may not) have a restricted view. And every time someone wants to reach their seat in the same row you have to stand up (clutching your coat and other possessions) because there is not an inch of space between your knees and the seat in front.

Even worse, especially in the summer months, is the lack of air conditioning.

I could go on but that's why I much prefer going to the Royal Festival Hall or the Barbican. Unattractive from the outside, perhaps, but so much more comfortable for the paying customer.

Both venues are easily accessible but the Barbican is a joy to get to even by car. There's an underground car park so all you have to do is drive in, walk a few yards and, hey presto, you're in the building.

That said, I wasn't sure how the 2012 Battle of Ideas would work in this enormous space. There's no question that this annual two-day event, now in its eighth year, had outgrown its previous home at the Royal College of Art in Kensington.

Each year it grew and grew until the building was a seething mass of humanity moving from one noisy meeting space to another.

In contrast, when I arrived at the Barbican on Saturday it was strangely quiet and the big queue on the ground floor was for another event entirely.

I had been told there was an Ideas Market, "a range of stalls promoting ideas to get you thinking and talking". There were some tables and stands but they were a bit spread out and the sense of a busy market or bazaar was somewhat lost.

The reason why it was relatively quiet in the public areas soon became clear. The festival was well-attended as always but the meetings were taking place in sound-proofed cinemas or dedicated meeting rooms.

Between meetings it was a different story. Suddenly the cafes and communal seating areas were busy and buzzing with conversation. Hardly surprising because the meetings were as lively and provocative as ever.

The session I was involved in was part of a series called 'Hot Off The Press' which, when it was first mentioned to me, seemed little more than an afterthought to the main festival, although they dressed it up well:

Throughout the weekend, a special programme of informal conversations between Battle of Ideas speakers on topics ‘in the news’ will take place in the Hammerson Room. These will be programmed in the days leading up to the festival to ensure they are as topical as possible. Details of issues and speakers will be published online in the week leading up to the Battle of Ideas and look out for details over the weekend.

I was even more underwhelmed when I saw where 'Hot Off The Press: Campaigning for Freedom' was located. The Hammerson Room wasn't a room at all. Tucked in a corner, it was a small area the shape of a letter box. It had three walls and a low ceiling. Luckily the walls were white and the lighting was fine otherwise it would have been a bit gloomy.

Actually, my pessimism was completely unfounded because the session turned out rather well. Chairman Josie Appleton (Manifesto Club) and my fellow panellists (No2ID's Guy Herbert and Anton Howes of the Liberty League) sat on brown leather armchairs facing the audience. There were several rows of seats – all full – plus a handful of bean bags at the front.

The size and nature of the space gave the meeting a great sense of intimacy. The discussion was informal and there was plenty of time for the audience to ask questions. It may have been a little unstructured – we went off on various tangents – but the 90 minutes passed very quickly.

Ironically it was exactly the sort of meeting I envisaged when we conceived The Liberty Lounge which took place at the Conservative party conference in Birmingham earlier this month.

Unfortunately that event didn't work out quite as I intended. The hotel couldn't provide the comfortable armchairs, sofas or indeed bean bags we requested so it ended up being like so many other panel discussions with the speakers sat behind tables. Now we have the template for a more informal event I know exactly what to do next time!

As for Saturday's discussion, it flew by in a bit of a blur. Guy spoke about No2ID and related issues, Anton explained the purpose behind the Liberty League, while I talked about the history of Forest and explained why the war on tobacco matters.

During Q&As there were several smoking-related questions. One or two people also wanted to talk about the legalisation of cannabis. Another proposed the creation of a new political entity to represent genuine liberals.

We were running out of time when I appealed to the audience to get actively involved in campaigning, even if it's only writing a letter to their MP.

The Battle of Ideas is a fantastic event and a huge achievement. To organise a festival like that would make me very proud.

If I have a (small) criticism it's this. Politically speaking it remains a talking shop far removed from the realities of day-to-day politics.

Next year, hopefully, it will find a more influential and credible media partner than the Independent. It certainly deserves to because the move to the Barbican demonstrates the sort of ambition that I would like to see rewarded with a sharp shift towards a more open and genuinely liberal political culture.

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