The mood at the Conservative party conference this week was a little subdued, and no wonder. As those who watched the television coverage will know, everyone entering the secure zone had to run a gauntlet of potty-mouthed protestors, their faces twisted into masks of hate. It’s not easy to celebrate after you’ve just been showered with spit and called a ‘Tory murderer’. Jeremy Corbyn made a point in his conference speech last week of asking his supporters to treat their opponents with respect and not descend to personal abuse, but I’m not sure how many of them got the message. If the atmosphere in Manchester was anything to go by, the ‘new politics’ is going be a lot like the politics of the 1970s and 1980s, with hard-left activists engaging in violent direct action. It feels like things are about to take a nasty turn.
On Tuesday, as I made my way through the streets of Manchester to the central convention complex, I came up with a brainwave. Instead of just walking through the police barriers as quickly as possible, eyes glued to the ground, I would stop and try and convince one of the protestors to have lunch with me. My plan was to persuade them that I wasn’t an evil scumbag, determined to privatise the NHS, demonise people on benefits and enrich the 1 per cent, but someone who shared many of the same values as them. I wanted to show them that it was possible to be a Tory and, at the same time, care about the poor and the dispossessed. If I could get this person to understand that we’re motivated by much the same things, but simply disagree about how best to achieve them, perhaps they’d stop referring to all Conservatives as ‘scum’. It would be a small victory in an otherwise unsettling few days.
Sure enough, I was met with a chorus of abuse as I approached the barrier, with some of them identifying me by name and saying it with a kind of despairing resignation, as if I really was beyond hope. A line of police officers stood between the protestors and me and I asked one of them if it would be OK if I wriggled through. ‘On your head be it, mate,’ he said, stepping aside.
I was slightly nervous, not least because a couple of journalistic colleagues had had a bad experience on Sunday when they strayed beyond the barrier and had to be rescued by the police. But these demonstrators seemed wrongfooted when they found themselves face to face with a bona-fide Tory, politely asking if he could take one of them to lunch.
‘You’ve probably never met someone like me before and I’ve never met anyone like you,’ I said. ‘Why don’t we have lunch and spend some time getting to know each other?’
The man closest to me, a white Rastafarian with a torn T-shirt, immediately took umbrage at this.
‘Of course you’ve never met anyone like us,’ he said. ‘We’re far too common for a Tory squire like you.’ He then broke into a chorus of ‘Common People’ — ‘I want to sleep with common people’ — which had everyone around him in stitches.
I was tempted to point out that he’d misunderstood. I didn’t mean that and if he knew anything about Tories he’d know that we think of ourselves as the tribunes of the people and like to caricature anti-austerity protestors as privately educated toffs posing as working-class rebels. Indeed, clearing up these misunderstandings was precisely why my ‘cultural exchange’ was such a good idea. But I bit my tongue.
‘I’ll do it,’ said a middle-aged, grey-haired woman. She was wearing a tank top that looked like it was made of string and I was reminded of a joke Boris had made earlier that day about Trots and militants having ‘vested interests and interesting vests’.
As we strolled down the street, looking for a restaurant, she told me she didn’t want any lunch. ‘The policies of this government make me so sick, I couldn’t eat anything,’ she said. But she agreed to let me buy her a cup of coffee. We settled on a curry house opposite the convention complex.
At first, I thought I’d found a ‘crustie’ that fitted the Tory stereotype. She wasn’t to the manor born, although her ex-husband was privately educated, but nor was she living on the breadline. She was a 63-year-old private maternity nurse whose last job was looking after the baby of a Premier League football manager and she’d obviously done quite well for herself. She lived in a housing association flat, but was intending to take advantage of the government’s extension of the right to buy so she could leave something to her son. ‘I’m not a hypocrite,’ she said, catching the look of surprise on my face. ‘I told Jeremy Corbyn that I wish he had that policy.’
As expected, she was a huge fan of Corbyn’s and had joined Labour in order to vote for him. But in other respects she surprised me. Turned out ‘right to buy’ wasn’t the only Tory policy she approved of. She also wanted Britain to regain control of its borders — ‘I think there’s too many foreigners in London’ — and on some issues, such as foreign aid, she was to the right of the government. ‘I think we should look after our own people first,’ she said.
Yet in spite of this, she was still happy to brand Conservatives ‘scum’. How did she square that circle?
‘Those people going in there, they don’t give a toss,’ she said, suddenly becoming quite angry. ‘They live in a nice little world, where everything’s nice. Why did they go into politics? These people — George Osborne, David Cameron — look like they’re full of their own self-importance. You should only go into politics if you want to improve the world, if you’ve got something you really care about.’
‘But Tories do care,’ I said. ‘You may disagree with some of Osborne and Cameron’s policies, but, believe me, that’s why they went in to politics. To improve the world.’
She looked completely flabbergasted by this, as if she couldn’t believe anyone could be quite so naive. She cited the benefit cuts as evidence that Tories were ‘evil’ — ‘Forcing people on their deathbed to go back to work’ — and threw in Nick Clegg for good measure. Before she joined Labour she’d been a Lib Dem, but became disillusioned after the coalition was formed.
In the end, I didn’t manage to convince her that Tories were in politics for the right reasons. But she certainly confounded my expectations. She wasn’t a ‘Trot’ or an ‘anarchist’ and some of her political views were closer to Nigel Farage’s than Jeremy Corbyn’s. My reluctant conclusion is that she – and the other protestors – don’t need much of an excuse to engage in demonisation and two minutes of hate. The wolf is in all of us, prowling around in the unconscious, always on the look out for permission to be let out.