My brush with Bilderberg

Claims of global conspiracy seem far-fetched but Bilderberg does represent an immense networking and lobbying opportunity, says Nelson Jones. The concerns of rabble-rousing Texan radio host Alex Jones may be risible but those of Labour MP Michael Meacher

I'm sitting in a field near Watford on a glorious summer evening. Just visible across several rolling acres of exquisitely landscaped parkland, nestled discreetly among the trees, is the Grove Hotel, where up to 150 of the world's most powerful and influential people, including George Osborne, Henry Kissinger and Google's Eric Schmidt, are holding confidential talks. Ed Balls is there as well.  Over here, cordoned off in a heavily-guarded "protest area", are at least ten times that number, the majority of whom believe that the guests in the Grove (aka the Bilderberg group) are up to no good, although the precise nature of their 60 year old conspiracy varies according to who you ask.  

It's a relaxed, even cheerful event, despite the crush of numbers (by mid-afternoon, the venue was full and hundreds have reportedly been turned away) and despite the serious implications of the global conspiracy being hatched half a mile away. There are provocative tee-shirts (the best slogan being "Kissinger my ass"), protest banners denouncing the New World Order, a man holding a ventriloquist's dummy and a rap artist wearing stick-on pointed ears. There's some security theatre, but the police and G4S are on their best behaviour, with the result that only rhetorical anger is on display. People are here to expose the Bilderberg group, even to laugh at it, not to destroy it.

Right now (it's shortly after 6pm) Alex Jones, the rabble-rousing Texan radio host now notorious for his outburst on Andrew Neil's Sunday Politics show yesterday, is leading the crowd in a chant of "We know you are killers" aimed in the general direction of the Grove. Jones's belief, which he has just outlined with much conviction though no discernible evidence, is that the shadow world government (as represented and perhaps constituted by the assembled Bilderbergers) is in the advanced stages of a strategy to halve and then enslave the world's population. "They are literally putting cancer into your children's food," he warns the crowd, who seem to be receptive to the message. Many of them will have heard it before: Jones's Infowars broadcast claims an audience of five million listeners. But if Jones's audience really believed what he was telling them one might expect them to be more visibly disturbed.

(Jones's subsequent meltdown on Sunday Politics divided opinion among Bilderberg-watchers. For some, he had blown a precious opportunity and given respectable conspiracy theorists a bad name. Others, however, saw it as a clever stratagem to gain maximum publicity - an aim in which it undoubtedly succeeded, although publicity is far from being the same as credibility.)

If Jones and his fellow headliner David Icke represent one extreme of the anti-Bilderberg tendency, the presence of Labour MP Michael Meacher suggests that concern isn't confined entirely to UFO believers and people who smoked too much dope in the 1960s. Meacher's beef was with the intrinsic lack of accountability involved with what he calls "leaders of Western finance capitalism" meeting in secret. "They want to have complete frankness, serious policy making, they want to concert their plans - which are pretty brutal,"  he complained, to wild applause.

And here, for me, lies the paradox of this event. Billed by the organisers as the "first ever Bilderberg Fringe festival", it is in many ways indeed fairly fringe ("Tinfoil-hatsonbury," one wag calls it). Speaker after speaker earns cheers for denouncing 9/11 as in inside job, calling global warming a scam and warning about plans to microchip the entire population. People I speak to are eager to discuss pyramid power, satanic ritual sacrifice and the global elite's dependence on something called "monatomic gold". Easy pickings for mainstream journalists after a dismissive vignette, as is the presence of Jones and Icke.  In the absence of information from the actual conference, and with no pictures of arriving delegates beyond a procession of cars with blacked-out windows, it's difficult to portray Bilderberg in a serious light.  

Yet newsworthy it surely is. Claims of global conspiracy seem far-fetched, (Kissinger, yes. Mandelson, even. But Ed Balls?) but Bilderberg does represent an immense networking and lobbying opportunity, three days in which top bankers and corporate executives are holed up with influential politicians and international civil servants including the IMF's Christine Lagarde. Alex Jones's concerns may be risible but Meacher's are not. Even if the Bilderbergers aren't secretly running the world, or for that matter deciding anything of substance, there is symbolism in their gathering, and in David Cameron's acceptance on Friday of an invitation to join them.  

Beyond the conspiracy pantomime lurk very real concerns. Concern over the way the international financial system, post crash, seems to have been rigged in favour of the banks and the plutocrats. Concern over the increasing possibilities of state surveillance of individuals, as shown this very weekend with the news about the US authorities' PRISM programme, not to mention the ongoing debate over the Home Office's proposed Communications Data Bill.  Concern about the impact of globalisation. Concern above all about the growing chasm that seems to separate a feather-bedded elite from a mass of the population whose jobs and incomes seem ever less secure.

That this year's Bilderberg conference has attracted so much media attention and so many protesters is testament to decades of obsessional pursuit by Alex Jones and fellow conspiracy theorists. For decades, even during the postwar years when they were genuinely influential, the meetings received no publicity at all. But it also suggests that their ideas are becoming mainstream. Icke had the air of a man vindicated after years as a lone voice in the wilderness, as well he might: last week he announced a plan to launch his own internet TV station and public donations poured in.  

Even the conference organisers are much less secretive than they used to be. Where once those involved would deny very existence of the event, these days an agenda and a list of delegates is released on an official website. And if this new openness comes in part from exasperation at the crazy claims that have been made down the years about Bilderberg, it must also reflect an understanding that in the 21st century secret meetings of highly influential people are bound to attract suspicion and deserve to attract scrutiny. If Bilderberg and similar gatherings have up to now been of interest only to an eccentric fringe of conspiracy theorists and "researchers", that is a media failure and not the fault of Alex Jones.

A banner draped over the security barrier outside the Bilderberg meetings. Photograph: Getty Images
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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.