Every time I come to Manchester for a conference, the perimeter fence guarding the politicians seems to shrink, retreating further towards to the garrison complex. There is something allegorical about this: the debate inside the conference is narrowing, appealing to a bunch of political nerds talking about ‘pre-distribution’ or the ‘big society’. And outside there is real, raw anger from the voters. The closest the general public get to party conferences nowadays is the Victoria Derbyshire show on Five Live, where 250 random people are invited to meet those politicians who dare venture outside the security-sealed conference bubble. The result is discussion quite unlike anything you’ll hear from a stage-managed conference floor. Today was no exception, and I went along to watch.
The session kicked off with at least two audience members describing Ed Miliband as a “shambles,” one of whom formed the impression after spending ten minutes talking to him ( “wimpy handshake” and a “lack of credibility”). Derbyshire started asking for ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers from the crowd collectively: is he trustworthy? Honest? The ‘nos’ grew so loud they she had to give up. When she asked if he was ‘strong,’ someone shouted “no – that’s why they chose him!” ‘They’ meant the union barons, of course, some of whom were there too. As were a few brave Shadow Cabinet members. John Denham was sent out to say that Ed was a man of substance because he tackled Murdoch. This line is worth listening to, because I suspect it will be repeated:-
Michael Meacher was sent in to play the role of the eminence grise. The deficit was 3pc in mid-2007, he said, as if this were normal. But that was the boom: why was there any deficit at all? Brown ran up a deficit about £35 billion in both 2006 and 2007: how can he excuse this overspend? When Victoria Derbyshire presented the government line, that the deficit was going down by a quarter, audience members started to heckle. One shouted ‘but the debt is going up!’ A trade unionist quoted “a great economist” (it was Reagan) to the effect that you should not worry about the deficit too much because it is big enough to look after itself.
Not that the audience were right-wing. One woman said the Tories would rather the young were left to rot on the dole, rather than find work. Derbyshire picked her up on this: do you really think so? She did. The audience seemed to me to represent what is now the largest single (and most neglected) force in British politics: the abstainers. More people now stay away than voted for the winning party, something that never happened before 2001. “The problem with politics is the politicians,” one man declared, to much applause. When the microphones were turned off, the politicians had a hard time getting out of the room unmolested. Even the cheery Ben Bradshaw was also tackled by an audience member who ended the conversation by shouting: “You’re on another planet! You’re out of touch.” One remonstrated with John Denham (picture, below) accusing him of lying with statistics.
The mood was not so much anti-Labour, but anti-politician. And this is a force that needs to be taken far more seriously than is being done now. The Derbyshire show serves a great purpose in bringing ordinary voters to gatecrash the party. Rachel Reeves was supposed to be there, but cancelled – as far as I can work out, she did so for a photocall with Ed Miliband rather than confront (and, who knows, maybe win over) real voters in front of millions of listeners.
Whichever Tories are doing her show week ought to prepare carefully. MPs are always guaranteed a warm reception from people paid to clap. But Derbyshire’s untamed audience in the unsecure zone is, in the end, the only one that matters.