I spent the weekend up in Manchester volunteering with Counterfire and the People’s Assembly at Take Back Manchester; a series of protest events around the Conservative Party Conference. For me this had the potential to be much more than just another huge gathering of fellow lefties shouting at empty Parliament buildings. This was a golden opportunity to practice trying to engage some Tories in conversation; not primarily to argue with them, but to get to know them as people; to find out their cares and concerns, and perhaps to share my own.
While we were in a pub chewing the fat with the Tories, a few hundred others were outside, protesting with Disabled People Against the Cuts (DPAC) – the incident where Boris Johnson got pelted with plastic balls. While throwing things and shouting may feel cathartic, I find that conversing with people on an equal footing feels much more rewarding than shouting at someone who simply smirks at you and banks the incident for an amusing anecdote. However, it is very likely that, had I had the life experiences that many of those at the DPAC have had, I too would have been far too angry to talk. We also have to bear in mind that I have had at least my fair share of cultural and educational privilege, and as a result I was sufficiently confident and articulate (and calm) to perform this particular stunt.
Here’s what I learned:
It was hard to get started.
Although I’d already spent half an hour charming delegates into taking a copy of Counterfire, it took me another 30 minutes to psych myself up to stop one of them on the street and ask him what he thought of the protests. I found it easier than Brendan did, I think, which is funny. Maybe I’ve had more practice at talking when I don’t feel like it. After a couple of semi-successful conversations we decided to take our mission to the pub, where the Tories were more stationary, and there was beer.
I used the following questions to get things going:
- Are you enjoying the conference?
- Why are you here?
- What do you think about the protests?
We then went on to ask them what issues were important to them, which in some cases led to an impassioned discussion, and in others an amiable chat about jobs, families and hobbies.
We stood out like sore thumbs in that pub
The barman kept coming over, giving the dog chicken broth and biscuits, and asking sotto voce how it was going. We hadn’t told him what we were doing; it was bleeding obvious. We were scruffy from three days’ camping on a kindly stranger’s sofa, wearing buttons saying No to TTIP and Save the NHS and Cancel Greece’s Debt. The dog wore a red bandanna; I wore a green one. Pretty much everyone else in the pub was smartly suited, noticeably taller on average than us (generations of superior nourishment?), and wore a blue conference badge.
Most people were up for a chat
Maybe they were bored, maybe they found us exotic, I don’t know, but most of the people we approached were surprisingly up for a conversation. Some of them even bought us drinks.
Most of them didn’t admit to being a Conservative
‘I’m not a Tory, I just work for them’, was a common response. We met Stuart, a campaign manager who described his job as ‘helping the conservatives win elections’, but said it was ‘just a job’. Questioning him about his own opinions, we found them to be left of centre if they were anything at all. His locus of worldly concern was focused on his immediate family and he claimed he came to the conference mainly ‘to catch up with friends’. I began to sense that the Conservative Party was less of an ideology; more of a social club. Or at least part social club, part business network.
Philip and Martin were really up for a chat. I think they were occasional colleagues (something legal), and Martin was more of a Tory than Philip, although he was still very cagey about it. We talked about the meritocracy (they still believe we live in one) and the London housing crisis. Martin has two houses. I didn’t think of it at the time, but I wish I had suggested to him that he takes our one-bed flat, and we move into his London pied-à-terre so that we’d have the space to have a family before my ovaries dry up completely.
Apparently ‘politics isn’t real, you know’
I felt this was a defensive remark intended to deflect serious issues. Politics itself may be layered with drama and theatre, but politicians make decisions that have a very real impact on people’s lives. To say that politics isn’t real means that it doesn’t have a significant impact on your life or those you know and/or care about. To me this remark reveals a disconnect with those whose quality of life is genuinely affected by the government’s policies, such as tuition fees, NHS cuts and the minimum wage. This is a real problem; the ‘us and them’ mentality between the right and the left. Both groups are increasingly isolated from one another as those who can buy themselves out of state provision do exactly that, leading to this impression that politics *is* merely theatrics.
We all need to talk more
I had many uplifting and inspiring moments in Manchester. All the speakers at the Laugh Them out of Town comedy night were exceptional and hilarious and moving. Francesca Martinez in particular had me in tears. But, while it is great to see there is a critical mass and the movement is growing so effectively, there is something not quite right – perhaps even a touch sinister – about only hanging out with people who have the same ideas as you. I feel a nagging sense that, while it is good that we continue to grow in strength and number and conviction, we also need to address the ‘us and them’ division. Many on the left are understandably angry and up for a fight, but only social convergence can reverse the divergent evolution we are seeing between the right and the left. We need to know ourselves and what we want, but we need to let them get to know us too. Otherwise we make it too easy for them to oppress us, and in doing so they oppress themselves.