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The Tories have given party conference season a fully virtual makeover by creating a computer game-style event complete with green fields, sofas and chairs, and interactive doorways.

Pictures shared exclusively with PoliticsHome by the Conservative party show the virtual conference hall around which delegates can walk up to traditional stall holders for a “chat”. They can also visit fringe events in white tents in a field, and then head through to an auditorium to watch Boris Johnson, the Chancellor, Foreign Secretary and others give their speeches.

Website Politico reported in the summer that the virtual stalls in an online exhibition hall at the conference had prices ranging from £6,000 to £25,500 plus VAT.

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It is £850 to attend as a business guest, £100 a guest, and it is also possible to sign up as an observer. The annual conference is a lucrative endeavor for the Conservatives, with the party making £1.5million on last year’s event, and £2million in 2017. Conferences are usually huge money spinners for political parties, but the Coronavirus pandemic has threatened to wipe out this income stream.

The virtual conference, which should have been held in Birmingham this year, is the brainchild of party co-chair Amanda Milling, who told PoliticsHome: “We’ve built a platform where it will look and feel like a conference but on a computer screen.

“You’ll go in and there’ll be the entrance area – the foyer – then you’ll be able to go into different parts. You’ll be able to go into the auditorium or you can go to fringe events. We’ve got a brilliant line up of fringe events.

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“Then there’s the exhibition area where you can go into a stand and chat to exhibitors there.

“It is the full conference experience but online. The team have done an absolutely brilliant job.”

Asked if they have created a form of computer game, Milling said: “It literally is, you’re going to go into different places!

“You will go into the auditorium, you have those watching on, you’ve got it all laid out and the speech area as well.”

1601398245 114 Heres An Early Sight Of The Virtual Conference The Tories

The traditional autumn party conference season was forced to move entirely online this year because of coronavirus and has so far seen Labour’s Keir Starmer give a live-streamed speech in a near empty room in Doncaster and leader of the Lib Dems, Ed Davey, stood on his own at an orange podium to speak direct to cameras.

Milling, who became co-chair alongside Ben Elliott in 2020, and the conference team at Conservative Campaign Headquarters in Westminster aswell as senior party representatives dreamt up the idea to try to create a far more advanced virtual experience than other parties, with lots of fringe events, and question and answer sessions.

They are understood to have hired in a top tech firm to create the experience, but will not release the details of who they are until after the event for security reasons.

“Obviously we’re disappointed we’re not going to be in Birmingham but we couldn’t possibly hold a physical conference this year. So it’s actually been an opportunity to do things a little bit differently,” she said.

The party is understood to have hired a venue in east London location for the cabinet ministers to do their speeches from, which will be filmed and screened online, and will have a more traditional party conference backdrop.

Milling opens the conference on Saturday, with Home Secretary Priti Patel speaking on Sunday, Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s speech on Monday and the Prime Minister’s on Tuesday.

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France terror attack reignites a national debate on the right to offend

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On Thursday, three people were stabbed to death at a church in the French city of Nice. While the investigation is still underway, French President Emmanuel Macron said after the incident that the country was under attack by “Islamist and terrorist madness.”
Thursday’s killings follow the murder on October 16 of Samuel Paty, a teacher in the northern Paris suburb of Éragny. He was beheaded after showing cartoons published in the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo depicting the Prophet Mohammed to students in his class. An 18-year-old Chechen refugee admitted to the killing in a social media post before being shot dead by police.
The name Charlie Hebdo will be familiar to anyone who remembers the terror attacks that took place in 2015, when gunmen forced their way into the magazine’s offices in Paris and murdered 12 people. The attackers allegedly said they were avenging the Prophet Mohammed. Charlie Hebdo, a small magazine known for provocative and often offensive images and articles, had published caricatures of the Prophet in 2012. Many Muslims consider images of the Prophet Mohammed to be highly offensive.

The recent attacks are reminders of the tensions in France’s secular society, which frequently extols the values of free speech and freedom to practice religion. France is home to 5 million Muslims, many of whom live in poorer areas and are often marginalized in politics and media. The vast majority of those do not support Islamic extremism, but often face unfair stereotypes, experts say.

“I believe there’s been an attempt to Islamize poverty in France by the far-right which had bled into mainstream politics and media, making people see crime in suburbs as a Muslim problem, rather than a socio-economic problem,” says Myriam Francois, a research associate at the Centre of Islamic Studies, SOAS, University of London. ”

The fact that there’s an audience for anti-Muslim rhetoric in the country will not come as news to anyone who remembers the French election of 2017, which came down to a second-round run-off between now-President Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, who then led the far-right French National front.

Macron may have won comfortably, but over 10 million French voters went with Le Pen, an anti-immigration candidate who claimed that France was “being attacked by radical Islam.” The rising popularity of Le Pen’s party pushed concerns about Islam into the mainstream, with French politicians introducing controversial laws in 2010 which prohibited Muslim women from wearing niqabs and burqas in certain settings.

Both far-right attitudes and France’s long tradition of secularism may play into decisions by public figures in French media and in politics to criticize Islam in sometimes sweeping and derisive ways. The University of Bath’s Aurelien Mondon, who specializes in right-wing populism, describes this as “punching down” on an already struggling minority.

“France has a long history of satirical media, and it traditionally punches up as Charlie Hebdo once did. In recent years, it has started punching down, particularly when it comes to Muslims. When you do that in a country where there is structural Islamophobia, there is a real risk to create more stigma and exclusion,” says Mondon.

Mondon believes that some are misinterpreting France’s historic principle of secularism. “The law of 1905, which separated Church from state, clearly stated you would face penalties if you force someone to follow a religion and equally if you prevent someone from following their religion. In the context of modern France, what we are seeing is the latter with women and girls being forced to remove their hijabs, niqabs and burqas.”

France has a long and cherished tradition of freedom of expression, and there can be no justification for attacking cartoonists or journalists for what they say or draw.

After the Charlie Hebdo attacks, many French people signaled their support for its unconditional exercise of free speech with the slogan #JeSuisCharlie. But hateful speech should not be mistaken as an integral part of French identity, says Francois. “It’s entirely possible to be horrified at the murders that have taken place while also believing what Charlie Hebdo does is offensive,” she says.

“The problem for France is when people start pretending that Charlie Hebdo’s right to offend is a barometer of national identity. It basically prohibits a point of view and implies that if you don’t support Charlie Hebdo, you are not fully French.”

Things get even messier when the state appears to back a particular side. Macron has publicly supported Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish whatever it wants. The images Paty showed were in a class about freedom of expression backed by the French education system. And a Charlie Hebdo front page was projected onto public buildings in Toulouse and Montpellier, which both have substantial Muslim populations, last week.

Leaders in the Muslim world have also taken sides this time. Turkish President Erdogan has accused Macron of discriminating against Muslims, questioned if he needs “some sort of mental treatment” and encouraged a global boycott of French goods. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan also also accused Macron of attacking Islam.

A spokesperson at the Elysée Palace, home of the French presidency, told CNN that Erdogan’s attacks are “dangerous in every way.”

And this is the seemingly impossible problem France faces once again. On one hand, freedom of expression — even the right to offend — is a cornerstone of French society. On the other, when the state champions crude, provocative or hateful expressions of opinion, it risks encouraging bias against the majority of French Muslims, who are not extremists and do not support terrorism.

Mondon says, “If we don’t start discussing the broader societal issues facing France, we allow the narrative of two Frances: Muslims on one side; French people on the other. And that sort of division is not only incorrect but exactly what terrorists want.”

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Keir Starmer Says There Is “No Need For Civil War” After Jeremy Corbyn’s Suspension Triggered A Major Party Split

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Sir Keir has said he was “very disappointed” by Jeremy Corbyn’s response to the EHRC report


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Keir Starmer has insisted he doesn’t want to be drawn into a “civil war” following a major backlash to Jeremy Corbyn’s suspension from the party.

The Labour leader has called on the party to “unite” following warnings from senior party figures that Jeremy Corbyn’s suspension would create “chaos” and cost them the next election.

Mr Corbyn was suspended by Labour General Secretary David Evans after he rejected the findings of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission report into anti-semitism, saying the level of anti-Jewish hatred was “overstated” by his political opponents and the media.

But the decision has triggered a major internal row, with Unite leader Len McCluskey claiming it was an “act of grave injustice”.

Speaking to the Daily Mail, Mr McCluskey, whose union is Labour’s largest donor, said that unless Mr Corbyn was reinstated the party would be “doomed to defeat” at the next election.

“This was a day for our party to move forward as one to defeat the evil of anti-Semitism. However, the decision to suspend Jeremy Corbyn has threatened that opportunity,” he said.

“The suspension appears to fly in the face of one of the important recommendations made by the Equality and Human Rights Commission – and which Keir himself said he would implement in full and immediately – which is to remove the leader’s office from party investigations.

“But it is also an act of grave injustice which, if not reversed, will create chaos within the party and in doing so compromise Labour’s chances of a general election victory. A split party will be doomed to defeat.”

Mr Corbyn has already vowed to fight his suspension, hitting back at what he claimed was a “political intervention” to have him removed.

Meanwhile, a raft of senior figures on the left of the party also lined up to criticise the decision, with former shadow chancellor John McDonnell saying it was “profoundly wrong”.

He tweeted: “On the day we should all be moving forward & taking all steps to fight anti-semitism, the suspension of Jeremy Corbyn is profoundly wrong. In interests of party unity let’s find a way of undoing and resolving this.

“I urge all party members to stay calm as that is the best way to support Jeremy and each other.”

Former shadow home secretary Diane Abbott added: “Divided parties don’t win elections. I oppose the decision to suspend Jeremy Corbyn from the Labour Party and will work for his reinstatement.”

But Sir Keir, who said he was “very disappointed” by Mr Corbyn’s comments, insisted there was “no need for a civil war”.

“What Len McCluskey is concerned about is that there shouldn’t be a split in the Labour Party and he is right about that,” he told Sky News.

“I don’t want a split in the Labour Party. I stood as leader of the Labour Party on the basis that I would unite the party but also that I would tackle anti-semitism.

“I think both of those can be done. There is no need for a civil war in our party, but I am absolutely determined to root out anti-semitism.

“I don’t want the words Labour Party and anti-semitism in the same sentence again. That is about building trust. That is my job, that is the job of the Labour leadership now, I know that now.

“The Jewish communities are looking at me and they are saying very clearly that we will judge you by what you do and not by what you say and they are right about that. I am determined to restore that trust and we can have a united Labour Party around that.”

He added: “I’m not purging anybody or any group within the Labour party.

“What I’m being very clear about is the Labour Party I lead will not tolerate anti-Semitism, full stop.

“Nor will it tolerate those who say anti-Semitism in the Labour Party doesn’t really exist, it’s exaggerated, or it’s just a factional war whipped up in or outside the Labour Party, including by the media.”

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Armenians on the front line in Nagorno-Karabakh

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Armenia and Azerbaijan have been at war for more than a month now – and both sides have suffered heavy losses.

The conflict, which dates back 30 years, is over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, run by ethnic Armenians in what is internationally recognised as Azerbaijan.

As the fighting continues, the Armenian mothers of those sent to the frontline have spoken of how their families have been torn apart – and not for the first time.

Film by Gabriel Chaim and Daisy Walsh

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