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Dolly Theis, Big Tent Foundation Board Member

When the Big Tent Ideas Festival first launched in 2017, we never imagined it would grow so quickly and become firmly established as an in-demand antidote to our overwhelmingly divided politics. We started with a couple of hundred people in a leafy field in Twyford thinking about and discussing the state and future of politics over a beer or two. As one attendee wrote, “Plenty of young people were speaking in one of the three large marquee tents.  Labour’s Lord Adonis was peppering around events, asking on-point questions. Liam Byrne MP told the assembled they were ideologically trapped, and I heard very thoughtful ideas about universal basic income, failing drugs policy, and prison reform.”

We suspected there would be interest in an event like this, but it was only when we hosted our first festival that we saw just how hungry people were for an antidote to political polarisation.

It might be hard to remember due to more recent events, but politics already felt deeply divided in 2017. The EU referendum had split the country down the middle the year before – the same year as the horrifying murder of Jo Cox MP, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia were more forcefully rearing their ugly heads, party movements such as Momentum were actively attempting to deselect MPs in their own party, and it looked like Theresa May was not going to survive as Prime Minister past Christmas. I remember thinking at the time, if politics continues like this then how the hell are we going to solve the more fundamental problems in society? For me it was clear; in order to fix the major problems, we needed to start with politics itself and Big Tent felt like the perfect place.

“Plenty of young people were speaking in one of the three large marquee tents.  Labour’s Lord Adonis was peppering around events, asking on-point questions. Liam Byrne MP told the assembled they were ideologically trapped, and I heard very thoughtful ideas about universal basic income, failing drugs policy, and prison reform.”

The 2017 pilot festival confirmed this. It was a safe, relaxed and cross-party place to begin heeling divisions and renewing the grassroots of politics. Somewhere to air frustrations, listen to people who think differently, debate the big challenges of today, exchange ideas and learn how issues are already being tackled across the country enjoyed in the traditional festival context of hay bales and music. We realised that there are not that many places like this. Party conferences are (obviously) not cross-party platforms, political events tend to focus on one or a small number of issues, and festivals like Hay and Latitude do not lead with the debate and discussion element.

So in order to achieve Big Tent’s full potential, we took it from being a modest 250-person event in 2017 to attracting well over 1,300 people from all sorts of backgrounds, beliefs, parties and sectors to a field on a scientific research site on the outskirts of Cambridge the following year. It also grew from three tents to eight ‘themed’ tents, from a couple dozen sessions to well over 50 covering a wide array of issues, and it included unique features like our graffiti wall and ‘Speakers Corner’, which gave everyone the chance to speak publicly on a topic of their choice.

The response was overwhelmingly and heart-warmingly positive. We had people keenly telling us afterwards that they had been inspired to re-join a political party after years of feeling depressed about politics; others saying it had given them a kick up the backside to start the thing they had been thinking about starting for a while; and plenty of people who announced it was the first time they had felt positive about politics in years. Even the most politically involved people said it was like no political event they had ever been to. The hunger for more was palpable.

We could also see it was changing the way people saw politicians debate and communicate. Unlike the carefully curated lines spouted out by politicians in media interviews or the vicious portrayal of political hostility on the news, the festival had politicians from different parties greeting each other with hugs and jokes then engrossed in thoughtful, challenging and open-minded debate, laced with a genuine desire to agree on what can be done about the toughest problems. It had members of the public from all backgrounds, beliefs and parties chatting away with each other in lunch queues about Brexit, Big Tech, climate change and more. I remember even passing Momentum activists asking former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne some absolutely fascinating questions!

Our 2018 festival was not only bigger than 2017, but it also firmly established our status as cross-party, inclusive and ideas driven. This was felt strongly at our Leaders’ Summit which we hosted the day before the main festival. The summit brought together around 100 of the country’s top doers in business, politics, the charity sector, media, think tanks and beyond to diagnose and establish solutions to some of the biggest problems we face. Unusual and fascinating dynamics were aplenty. At one-point Nick Clegg and Harriet Harman were speaking while the then Secretary of State for International Development Penny Mordaunt MP sat in the audience and listened – not something you see very often! The day was rounded off by an outstanding speech by Michael Gove MP who waxed lyrical about the potential of Big Tent to help shift our political culture to being one brimming full of optimism, ideas and solutions. It really felt like we had unleashed an optimism that could be transformative. One that could restore our faith and trust back into politics and allow the country to get one with solving the issues that really matter.

“I don’t know anything about politics and if I’m being honest, I find it really boring. But then I came to Big Tent and was like ‘this isn’t a political festival’ because people were talking about issues that matter to all of us! I found the sessions in the Tech and Innovation Tent really interesting and relevant for my work. It has made me realise maybe I should get more involved in politics.”

In 2019, we wanted to keep the festival moving around the country to ensure we brought this better politics straight to people. We found a charming community farm on the Isle of Dogs with the dramatic Canary Wharf skyline as its backdrop and felt this contrast fitted our message of uniting very different communities together perfectly. The festival grew again in size to over 1,500 people, and we retained the nine-themed-tents format with 50 sessions and over 220 speakers. Highlights included Rory Stewart sitting cross-legged on the grass while attendees sat in a circle around him asking questions and engaging in long conversation; Lisa Nandy MP finishing her very popular session and then chatting away to attendees and giving interviews including with Unherd’s Freddie Sayers; Jacqui Smith, Chair of the Jo Cox Foundation reminding people about the destructive consequences of abuse and intimidation in public life; and singer and mental health campaigner Jordan Stephens speaking out about his own struggles with mental health and how the arts can help transform the lives of people suffering from mental health problems.

We received even more feedback after our 2019 festival, including ways to engage an even wider audience. One festival goer said when her boyfriend told her they were going to a political festival she tried to find any excuse not to come, “I don’t know anything about politics and if I’m being honest, I find it really boring. But then I came to Big Tent and was like ‘this isn’t a political festival’ because people were talking about issues that matter to all of us! I found the sessions in the Tech and Innovation Tent really interesting and relevant for my work. It has made me realise maybe I should get more involved in politics.”

For us who feel more familiar with and involved in politics, it can be hard to remember that the word ‘politics’ can put a lot of people off. This is something I feel is unwisely overlooked. And after three festivals it’s clearer to me than ever before that Big Tent’s purpose is essentially threefold: to heel divisions so we can get on with tackling the most important issues more effectively; to open politics up to everyone so we’re all able to contribute and participate; and to convene people from all sorts of backgrounds, beliefs, sectors and parties (or none!) to breakdown the echo chambers we too often find ourselves in, listen to each other and hopefully find solutions to the most pressing challenges together. Big Tent is the place where the very best ideas are generated, a desire to act is ignited and even the most taboo or difficult issues are faced together.

Now in its fourth year, Big Tent Ideas Festival is heading north this summer and we plan to make it more participatory, diverse and exciting as ever before. We have huge plans for this year, not least taking the festival to Greater Manchester. It’s time for Westminster to speak to, hear from and learn from all parts of the UK and we want to lead that conversation. The Festival will be taking place at MediaCityUK – a fantastic development on the banks of the Manchester Ship Canal in Salford and Trafford – and we are working to ensure that every single attendee has the opportunity to have their ideas heard.

We are so excited to share more details with you over the coming months and very much hope you, your friends, family, colleagues, neighbours and others will join us for what is set to be a phenomenal event. Sign up to receive news as soon as it comes in at www.bigtent.org.uk and do not hesitate to get in touch with us if you have any questions, suggestions, thoughts or reflections. Welcome to the Big Tent community!

Dolly Theis, has successfully led the Festival as Programme Director for the last two years and now shares her invaluable experience as a member of the Big Tent Foundation Board.

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