As I had planned, I attended the Reform Party UK’s first ever party conference on Sunday, October 3rd, 2021 in Manchester. This report gives some thoughts I took away from it.
I will say at the outset that I do not by my nature support any political party. In fact, I often say (only half in jest) that I would like to see politics made a capital offence. Retrospectively. I was there, not as one of the party faithful, but as an interested and friendly outsider, wanting to learn as much as possible about where the party was planning to go.
The hall capacity was a little under 400. Where I was, towards the front, it was about three-quarters full. This was a small meeting, compared to the two major Brexit Party events to which I went in 2019. And the demographics were different. Whereas at the Brexit Party’s event at the NEC in Birmingham I had seen all age ranges from 30 to 70 about equally represented, here the audience was almost entirely aged over 50. And while there had been quite a few black faces in the audience in Birmingham, here there were very few; and one of them was a speaker! But, I’m pleased to say, I saw only one participant wearing a face mask.
The occasion lacked the sense of energy and excitement, which the Brexit Party events in both Birmingham and Maidstone had engendered. Perhaps this was inevitable, given that this event marked the public start of a very long haul, which the party faces in order to gain sufficient support to make a difference.
We were welcomed by John Kelly, the party’s North area manager. He didn’t have time to say very much; but he did mention the still strong desire of some vested interests in government, notably the civil service, to go back into the EU. To which I would say, I reckon it’s far more than just the civil servants. So, we must guard still against Rejoiner scheming. The Battle of Brexit may have been won; but the campaign is still ongoing, and the war as a whole is hardly even started.
Next up was Nick Buckley MBE, the party’s candidate in the recent Manchester mayoral election. He spoke of the role of Manchester in the Industrial Revolution. Of the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, which took place just a few hundred metres away. And of the first meeting of the TUC, which took place in Manchester. (Though he made it plain that trade unions today no longer put the rights of the workers first). He spoke of removing “a mountain of bureaucracy,” and of the party’s aims to “convince people that a better model exists” and “to inspire the voters.” I thought his speech was excellent given the time constraints. Just the kind of precedents I approve of; anti-establishment movements to make life better for the “little people”. And just the kind of things I, for one, want the party to be doing.
Then we had Alan Graves, a former Labour councillor in Derby who defected to UKIP in 2014, and has now come across to the Reform party. He and his team have been very successful in local elections there, so that there are now 6 Reform councillors in Derby out of a total of 51. He was supported by his son, Alan Graves Junior, who showed signs of a potential to become a very good speaker. The background and attitudes of this pair surely give the lie to the view, put forward by a leftist friend of mine, that the Reform Party are nothing but “right-wing nutcases.”
Next came Cai Dewar from Wales. He is a Pentecostal bishop; and he’s certainly a preacher-man! He spoke of “everyday people who are ready for reform” and “a completely new direction of prosperity for all of our people.” He described Welsh Labour as being “out of touch with anything outside the Cardiff Bay bubble.” He slammed them as showing “no care for us as a people” and “no concern for us or our way of life” (particularly on lockdowns), and having “not listened to us at all.” They have “put Wales on a road map to destruction,” and they “blame everyone else for their own failings.” What is needed is “fresh common-sense ideas that work for the people.” And in particular, re-vitalizing the economy and encouraging small businesses. His closing line was: “Good government focuses on the people, not on driving them down into poverty.” It was all a little bit over the top; but I have no doubt of Cai Dewar’s ability to inspire people to get involved and to seek better things.
The final speaker of the first session was the party’s deputy leader, Dr David Bull. Here, for the first time, there surfaced a kind of nationalism with which I am not very comfortable. He started with “We believe in Britain” and talk of “our great country,” where I would have talked about “British values” (the values of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution) and “the great people who live in this country.” Still, I enjoyed his description of Theresa May as “that bloody difficult woman” and his castigation of the Tories because they “never thanked us.” He spoke of a “seismic political movement, and you can feel it.” He’s quite right; but I didn’t feel a metaphorical movement of the earth nearly as strongly in that hall as I had at the Brexit party events, particularly in Maidstone. He reported that the polls were showing Reform support at about 6% – not far behind the Greens – and that was without having announced a single policy yet.
Most importantly for me, he said: “We are a bottom-up party. We take ideas from our members.” That is something which distinguished the Brexit Party from all the rest. And if it is carrying over into the Reform party, that’s all to the good.
The first speaker in the second session was Dominique Samuels on “A young person’s perspective.” She said she is looking for “truth, common sense and freedom.” So am I, lady, so am I! And she said “The media don’t have the best interests of people at heart.” Absolutely spot on, again. Having only just left university, she was well placed to tell us about the despair that students have been feeling, and the problems they have suffered, as a result of the COVID measures. And she concluded with “Stop voting for the least worst!” She exited to a standing ovation, which she thoroughly deserved.
Next came the party’s chief executive and the organizer of the conference, Paul Oakden. He slammed the current political system, saying that it “ignores the will of the majority, and puts all power into the hands of the few.” Too true, I say; and not only all the power, but virtually all the wealth too. He looks for “a better, bolder, braver Britain.” He gave some news on changes to the membership structure, and told us of the party’s target to contest every seat in England and Wales at the next general election, and many in Scotland. And he made an explicit commitment to the candidates: “We won’t stand anybody down.” But it was his final words of wisdom that stuck in my memory. “The state is the servant of the people, not the other way round.” You can’t hit a nail on the head better than that.
Next was Isabel Oakeshott, a political commentator who has been to more than 20 Tory conferences (and several Labour ones, to boot). Her presentation was a tour de force on the topic of – government lies. “Three weeks to flatten the curve.” “Vaccines are for adults only.” “There are no plans for vaccine passports.” The Tory government, she said, “distorts, dissembles and actively disinforms.” Habitually, I would add. Having promised to “level up” the country, they are not only failing to do that, but they also fail to “level with” the people. She summed up the Tories as “dishonest, incompetent and cruel,” and undemocratic, too.
She had built up her case gently, but inexorably. There had to be something special to come at the end. And there was. “I will neither forget nor forgive any of this, and neither should you.” Amen, my lady! And then, her final thought: “But we mustn’t let it get us down.”
That brought to the podium party leader Richard Tice. I liked his metaphor of “a nation of lions and lionesses led by donkeys.” And the ideas that “our future and freedom are not the government’s to lend back to us” and that “we need big, bold, brilliant reforms.” Moreover, his soubriquet for the Tories, “con-socialists,” is not only apt, but has also had a degree of coverage in the media. I confess that I didn’t get much out of the policy part of his speech; probably because he stuck quite closely to the policy document the party issued back in May, which I had reviewed and critiqued less than three weeks earlier.
There were a few sentences towards the end on the subject of “climate change,” one of my particular bugaboos. He labelled the Tory policies as “nett stupid,” saying they were “delusional, not achievable, and will impoverish us all.” That’s all true; but his counter-proposal of doing things that are “achievable, affordable and proportionate” ignores the elephant in the room – the (strong) possibility that there is actually no substance at all to the accusation that human emissions of carbon dioxide have caused or will cause catastrophic global warming. I shall say more on that subject a little later.
At lunchtime I went out, and saw the party’s campaign bus parked outside, with its slogan “The Tory boiler ban will freeze your gran.” I’d have liked to add to that: “An electric car can’t take you far!” And my two perennial moans about renewables: “When the wind don’t blow, the power don’t flow” and “When the sun don’t shine, there’s no juice on the line.” But I digress.
First up after lunch was David Kirkwood from Scotland. He is an IT consultant like me, so we share the pain of having had our careers ruined by a bad tax law called IR35. This same bad law has recently been used to screw up the careers of tens of thousands of lorry drivers; not to mention to cause a national supply chain crisis. I therefore heartily endorse his view that “We must put HMRC back in their box.” But there’s much more going on in Scotland. Not only have the SNP already launched vaccine passports for events – a requirement which, in direct contradiction to the rule of law, will be waived for the VSIP’s (Very Self-Important People) attending the COP 26 climate alarmist gabfest in Glasgow next month. But their policies have also wrecked many owner-managed firms; a big issue, because there are no less than 340,000 small and medium-sized enterprises in Scotland.
But he had wider-ranging things to say, too. “Freedom is innate; governments can only curtail it.” Spot on, pal. Of the Reform party: “We don’t have the self-serving freeloaders that other parties have.” Long may that continue! And his concluding words: “Let’s go and get ’em.”
Next came Alex Wilson the recent by-election candidate from Chesham and Amersham, with two of his colleagues. They made three very good points. “We must reach the silent majority. We must walk, talk and promote Reform UK.” “It’s all about offering people choices they wouldn’t have had before.” And: “We must rescue our culture from the ‘woke’ brigade.”
Next up was Kirsty Walmsley, talking about education from the point of view of a parent. “Children are brainwashed,” she said, “with political ideologies that do not reflect the values of our society.” “The education system has been failing for decades.” And she made an interesting point that parents who were forced to home-school for a while because of COVID school closures didn’t have either the knowledge or the computer resources to do it properly.
Then we had Julian Malins QC, who had been the party’s candidate in Wiltshire for crime and police commissioner. He made a long list of policy proposals. Restoring the role of stipendiary magistrates (which New Labour abolished in 2000), appointing more of them, and giving them more powers. Reforming the criminal legal aid system. Specialist courts for motoring offences. Getting rid of “imprisonment for public protection” and indefinite sentences, so that all offenders who have been imprisoned on this basis receive fixed terms. Subjecting the Crown Prosecution Service to competition. Getting rid of over-complicated rules that prevent many civil trials from proceeding at all. More generally, self-governance should be restored to the professions as a whole. And the “English Inquisition” as he calls it, that prevents new lawyers getting positions in which they can be trained, must be abolished.
I know little of the detailed ins and outs of the justice system – two weeks in the jury box are my whole experience of it – but I have listened to enough “expert” speakers on different subjects to know a real expert when I hear one. The Reform Party needs experts like Julian Malins.
Next was Patrick Benham-Crosswell on energy and emissions policy – a subject on which I have some considerable knowledge. I’ll talk about his presentation at the end, because what the next speaker, Claire Fox, said was extremely relevant to the audience’s reaction to it.
I confess that I like Claire Fox. Despite her earlier Marxist leanings, she talks plenty of sense. Her elevation to the House of Lords, as an avowed supporter of abolishing that body, seems a bit odd to me; but I suppose it may have seemed better to be a “mole” inside (or, perhaps, even a Samson) than to be permanently outside.
Claire Fox spoke on the subject of Culture Wars. She explicitly introduced herself as a friend of the party, but not a part of it. She said: “Culture wars are unavoidable.” You will become embroiled in them “just by speaking truth to power.” “You will need free speech” – and you will need to fight for it. Many victims of the culture wars “get ostracized, or lose their jobs.” And then, her four keynote messages for the Reform party. One, “You must take on the cancel culture, and beat it.” Two, “Don’t do your own version of it. You mustn’t legitimize the cancel culture, for example by name-calling.” Three, “Your job is to win hearts and minds.” And four, “Don’t get angry, get even. When they go low, you go high.” I totally agree with all four (though it’s very hard not to get angry with what is being done to us). And her last sentence, to me, makes two separate and important points. One, never give up the moral high ground. And two, a boxer delivering a low blow becomes very vulnerable to a big shot to the head.
She provided two final gems. “The party must be open-minded and flexible.” And “The only way to change politics for good is to have ordinary people doing it.”
I skipped the final session, as I thought I had already learned enough to be able to write this missive; also, because the subjects to be discussed in it were things in which I either have little interest, or had already covered in my comments on the May policy document.
It remains for me to cover Patrick Benham-Crosswell’s presentation, and the reactions to it. He began by stating three objectives which must be met on energy policy: getting emissions down, keeping the lights on, and not breaking the economy. He didn’t specifically mention carbon dioxide – and that, to me, was a red flag already. For the label “emissions” covers two completely different things that the alarmists hype as big problems: “global warming” and air pollution. And they need to be treated as separate issues.
I can agree with the second and third of his objectives. But on the first, where is the cost-benefit case for reducing emissions in the first place? In the case of air pollution, there is a long and sordid history, all coming out of a study done in the USA back in the early 1990s. The study itself is dubious, and the UK’s rationale for adopting it as a guideline for policy (in 2009) is even more fraught with uncertainty. But as to carbon dioxide emissions, I can say with confidence that no proper cost-benefit analysis on anything involving carbon dioxide emissions can be done under current UK government rules. This is because, also in 2009, New Labour abandoned the use of the “social cost of carbon” for calculations involving carbon dioxide emissions. As I have written elsewhere: “Cynically paraphrased, their argument seems to have been: ‘We know we can’t do a credible cost-benefit analysis that justifies any political action on this. But we’re already committed to political action. So, we’ll make up numbers to match the commitments, and hope that no-one notices.’” I have already written on both these issues; the articles can be found via the links which I included with my recent response to the party’s May policy document.
The audacity and dishonesty of the conduct of all the main UK parties on environmental matters over the last 30 years beggars the mind. Isabel Oakeshott understated her case; the current Tory bunch are not the only ones that have been dishonest, cruel and undemocratic. They have all of them, however, been extremely competent – at screwing us all.
I was interested to see the man next to me shake his head vigorously when the speaker mentioned tidal power as an option. I was even more interested when, after Claire Fox had finished her speech and the session, I joined a conversation with two people sitting behind me. They, like me, had come to the conference to find out where the party was going. They, like me, were dissatisfied with Patrick Benham-Crosswell’s presentation. And they seemed to know what they were talking about. One of them even suggested that the Reform party might have failed to take a strong stance on the energy and emissions issue because of fear of repercussions from the cancel culture. It came into my mind then that Claire Fox’s remarks may have been intended as a friendly warning that the party must do what is right, rather than what may seem to be “popular” at the time. Which is exactly my own position. Any movement that compromises its principles – which for the Reform party, Dominique Samuels and I agree, should be truth, common sense and freedom – is dead as a force for good.
When I left the hall and joined the throng outside, the first conversation I came to was on exactly the same subject. I put in my sixpennyworth, as always. And one of the participants, a fellow Cambridge man about three years my junior, told me he had been in the energy industry for his entire career. As with Julian Malins, I can tell an expert when I hear one. I didn’t ask his name, which was a pity. He should have been speaking in place of Patrick Benham-Crosswell.
In my view, the Reform Party must grasp the “climate change” nettle; and it must grasp that nettle now, before COP 26 begins. The reactions of others I spoke to about the issue told me that I am by no means alone among Reform party supporters in such a view. It isn’t necessary, though, for the party to come out as full-blown climate skeptics on day one.
My suggested approach would be to institute what I call an “Audit of the Conduct of Environmental Politics in the UK.” I would like to see the Reform party commit to an independent, unbiased, objective audit on how the issues of “global warming” and pollution from vehicles have been dealt with in the UK. You might present it as “a second opinion from independent experts,” and say to those that oppose the idea, “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.” The purpose of this audit must be to:
1. “drill down” to the hard evidence, identify what is known and what is not known,
2. put the evidence, and the unknowns, into context so they tell the full story,
3. get the truth out to the public – the ordinary people who are affected by these policies.
I presented this idea as my “policy pitch” at the Maidstone meeting of the Brexit party in 2019, and it was very well received by my listeners, including candidate Ahmad Malik, who coincidentally was the Brexit party candidate for the same seat that Alex Wilson contested in the recent by-election. I have looked out my “crib sheet” for that pitch, and will attach it to the e-mail I will send to the party with this missive. Once the general public finally come to understand what has been going on in environmental policy over 30 years and more, and how badly they have been misled, I think that David Bull’s “seismic political movement” can really get some traction. This has the potential to be a huge vote-winner; after all, more than 70% of the UK electorate are car drivers, and face severe restriction or even complete loss of their personal mobility due to the establishment’s “green industrial revolution” policies.
One lesson I took away from the party conference is that, in that audience, many people were extremely clued-up about the issues being discussed. This is a very strong asset for any organization, and I think the party should be making as much use of it as it can. As to my own contribution, I will be happy to help in whatever ways make the best use of my particular knowledge and talents. As a hard-core libertarian, I am always liable to be on the radical wing of the party. But in the current state of things, if the Reform Party can’t or won’t rescue our freedoms from out of the maw of the establishment and the political class, I can’t see anyone else who can. Our only option then would be along the lines of gilets jaunes. At 68, I really don’t want to have to go there.