My primary experience of politics has been the Sports and Social bar in the Houses of Parliament. It was with extreme trepidation that I headed off to Brighton for my first party conference. On the train from Victoria, a lobbyist friend hissed at me to watch my words – apparently the gossip begins on Southern Rail.
Dealing with so many opinionated people who have mastered that very particular nod during speeches and the right hearty laugh for Tory jokes – not to mention the piranha-like public affairs professionals – was a tad overwhelming. But I soldiered on, thrusting leaflets for our event at people trying to circumvent the anti-fracking activists and giant bees. I harbour a deep fear for people in animal costumes, so hoped that would act as a good bonding mechanism. Unfortunately they tried to avoid me as well.
Official business was on the Monday. The Society’s fringe event was held jointly with the other national academies and chaired by Alok Jha. There was a healthy turnout no doubt bolstered by the fact that some limited free food was in the offing. Our panelists mainly discussed the importance of engineering to the UK: ideas batted around included a Chief Engineering Officer within government to complement the Government Chief Scientific Adviser and treating ‘engineer’ as a protected title. More investment in research and more recognition for engineers and scientists emerged as some of the main conclusions.
The rest of our time was spent exploring the fringe events. While my saintly colleague Belinda went on an early morning run with Alastair Campbell, I chose to spend my days indulging in some of my favourite hobbies: eating bacon sandwiches and asking awkward questions.
One of the highlights was a small discussion about space policy hosted by Unite. The group, including a young and impressive Pamela Nash MP, talked about unrealised opportunities for the UK in the space industry and the continuing need for greater STEM uptake at a young age to encourage interest in space.
At heart, I am still a small child who hopes to be an astronaut, and so I was happy to tell the panel the story of the uncontested best day in my career – meeting the Atlantis space shuttle crew. That was exceptional, but getting to meet real scientists (and the odd former fighter pilot) is a great way to stimulate interest and excitement early on.
The conference was a useful insight into the political game, even if I did feel slightly like Nigel Barley embarking on his bewildering Cameroonian anthropological study. I knew it was time to leave when a maintenance worker accidentally changed the channel just before Ed Miliband’s speech. The ensuing panic over missing half a minute of eighties background music underlined the strength of belief that party members bring with them and the bizarreness of being an apolitical outsider.