George Grant was the Conservative Parliamentary Candidate for Bradford West at the 2015 General Election.
“Have you done your initiation ritual yet mate?” a protester yells at me as I exit the conference centre. “Have you stuck it in a dead pig’s head? ****ing Tory scum”.
Pretty much everyone here at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester has had a similar experience, or worse.
The first and inevitable upshot of such encounters is the instant dehumanisation of both sides, the one by the other. Hiding behind their placards and a stream of invectives, the protesters can reduce all ‘Tories’ (never Conservatives) to soulless killers of the poor in hoc to the ‘global elite’, safe in the knowledge that their behaviour makes the likelihood of an actual conversation with one very small indeed.
For our part, we can glare back at them confident in the knowledge that these people are simply mad, bad and probably dangerous to know. And in need of a good bath.
So imagine my surprise when late yesterday evening I stumbled across their encampment a few minutes beyond the conference centre. Tents laagered in a wide, lowered space, trestle tables erected, and the flags of Anarchism, Class War and the online ‘hacktivist’ group Anonymous fluttering ominously in the breeze. I felt like one of those scouts in the films who inadvertently stumbles across the enemy force as he reaches the ridgeline.
At this point I loitered, fighting competing urges to go and find out what these people are really like whilst wishing to avoid having the only suit I’ve brought to conference getting egged or worse.
“Can I help you mate?” calls one, more as a threat than an offer of assistance. “Yes” I reply, “I’d very much like to talk to you if you’d be willing”.
Moments later a middle-aged woman in an electric wheelchair pulls up behind me. She’s a former healthcare worker who’s now in very poor health and appears incapable of work. Speaking in wheezing breaths she launches into a tirade on the impact the Government’s reforms have had on her. It begins with cuts to transport services to her hospital, and the scandalous cost quoted by National Rail to build a disabled ramp at her local station, which has delayed its installation for over a year. She spoke of the difficulty she has affording her rent and the cost of heating her home, before despairing at the DWP’s insistence on finding her fit to work.
“Every time I go into remission, they think I’m well”, she wheezes at me fiercely. “I want to work, but look at me. I simply can’t. Who would employ me? I am unemployable!”
“It’s because you can move your fingers to type” her colleague chirps in helpfully. “I can’t!” she shoots back. “I can’t stop my hands shaking half the ****ing time!”
I ask if she has anyone who can help her at home. She tells me her partner cut his throat last year.
“Excuse me?” says a young lad who walks up to our group at that moment. “Would you like to come and talk to the rest of us?”
Having been furnished with coffee, declined an offer to smoke something called a marshmallow, and been informed “you’ve got balls the size of watermelons for coming down here mate”, what passes over the next two hours is as instructive as it is depressing.
Gathered are the standard-issue collection of eco-warriors, 9/11 truthers and class warriors you’d expect. But behind the mask, literally in some cases, are a group of mostly pleasant, witty and often fascinating human beings. And that latter point is the most important one: take down the barricades and you find human beings beyond the faceless ‘other’, on both sides.
Whipped-up on their protests, the mentality of the mob sets in, and that is what has turned normal people into monsters since men first ventured forth from their caves.
With the red mist lifted, you get the impression that most of these young men and women would be mortified if their mothers could ever see how they behaved, that is if their mothers even cared.
One girl in her late teens explains how her anxiety and depression is stopping her finding work. I ask what it is that makes her anxious. Once the laughter and hooting has died down she stands, pulls up her top and says “this” pointing to a bone protruding from under her ribcage behind her skin.
She explains how her older brother had broken her ribs and collar bone as a child. Her mother hadn’t even bothered to take her to hospital and the injuries had been left to heal that way. “I am so body conscious”, she says. “And now people tell me I’m anorexic; that I look like a skeleton, and it just hurts”. She tells me her ambition is to become a theatre director. “I love to dance and to sing, but I’m crap at both, so perhaps I can direct”, she says. I wonder if either of us really believe it.
Others speak to me of their lives living on the streets, and the comradeship they find in gatherings such as this. Drug abuse is a given, and for some reason the homeless group seem convinced George Osborne holds the key to this particular problem. “Does he do coke? I know he does!” cries one. “Can you get him to come and give us some? Don’t lie. We know you can!”
To a man (and woman), all are convinced that climate change will have snuffed out the world as we know it within 20 years. Arguments about the trade-off between initially higher renewable energy costs on the poor and the need to structure the transition from fossil fuels accordingly fall on deaf ears.
By this point my wife has called asking my whereabouts and I tell her I’ve been taken hostage. Funnily enough a couple of policemen appear to have the same concern at that moment and come down to the camp to see if everything’s alright. Did everyone get the feeling then that the police saw their job as protecting the likes of me from the likes of them? I’d say so.
Once my wife joins me we are informed we are the only Tories who’ve come to speak to them. I tell them they should shout less abuse and they might find more follow suit.
We part company to handshakes, goodbyes, and a dozen refrains of “thank you for listening”. I leave with the thought that what I’ve essentially just had is an encounter with society’s misfits.
Certainly there were those who frankly need to get a grip, principally the middle-class eco-faction who travelled up from Portsmouth as well as the militant anarchist faction, the latter group declining to join us throughout.
But there were others who really have been failed, be that by the system, by their families or both. These are the people for whom the Government’s reforms really might not be working, the exceptions who prove the rule maybe, but exceptions nevertheless.
Behind the masks, the banners and the anger, I wonder if we as Conservatives should perhaps be more ready than we are to work out which is which.