Last week in Manchester the Tories staged their annual festival of self-congratulation, also known as the party conference. This time they have been trying to keep the swagger to a minimum after their surprise election victory in May. Whatever your view on whether or not austerity is the best solution to our economic problems, it is clear that the Tories have not governed for everyone during the five years of the coalition. There have been cuts to unemployment benefit, the introduction of the bedroom tax, rising homelessness and now low paid workers are losing their tax credits. All of these have disproportionately affected the poor, so not everyone was pleased to see the Tories back in government.
Inevitably this displeasure led to a protest outside the party conference, a protest attended by over 60,000 people. It was a large protest, but Manchester Police commented on Twitter (??? link) that it was a well organised, and well behaved, protest with only 4 people arrested. Despite this commitment to public order from the protestors, the right wing media still called them yobs and tried to make it look like Genghis Khan's hordes had tried to invade the Tory conference. Some journalists were spat it, which is completely unacceptable, but we should not judge a largely peaceful protests but its worst members.
There was an attempt from the Tory sympathetic sections of the press to portray this a far left lynch mob, prevented from murdering the Tory party membership by only be a thin line of police officers. We were told that these people were anarchists and socialists who want to destroy the government and capitalism. I do not think this is fair. I think that many of these people were not anarchists, socialists or even trade unionists or Labour party supporters. In fact, many probably did not think of themselves as left wing.
These were the people hurt by five years of the Tory led coalition and the people who will be hurt by five years of a Tory government. The people hit by the bedroom tax, the people who are about to lose their tax credits. This protest was simply about the Tories acknowledging that these people exist. It was about the Tories recognising that last five years have not been "mending the roof" as George Osbon put it, but bringing it down onto a lot of peoples' heads. It was about the fact that yes unemployment down and GDP is up but there has been a human cost to this, primarily born by one section of society. If the Tories are going to have a huge festival of self-congratulation then they have to walk past the people who they have hurt.
The worst thing about the Tories is that they deny the hurt they have done. They talk about sacrifice and tough decisions, as if all that is needed to fix the country’s economic problems is for a few people to go without quite so many take-aways and trips to the pub. The Tories praise themselves for making difficult decisions but they are never the ones who have to make sacrifices because of them. They deny the deaths caused by benefit sanctions and they refuse to acknowledge that what they are doing is destroying communities and lives.
The most intense anger of the protest, the spitting and the shouting, was brought about by the Tories trying to avoid the protesters or walk away without acknowledging them. The crowd grew more angry and aggressive to get attention.
From the Tory's point of view, they refuse to engage with anyone who presents their criticisms in what they see as an unreasonable manner. They will not engage with what they see as a mob baying for blood. From the point of view of someone at the protest (or the millions of people hurt by Tory policy that they represent) there is no reasonable way to bring their suffering to the attention of the Tory Party.
I assume that the Prime Minister did not go into politics to make poor people worse off. He just lives in a posh Tory bubble, where the only people he meets are Tories, even those from less well off backgrounds. Trying to pierce this bubble is almost impossible. The protesters have no means to make their objections known other than to shout loudly. The Tories ignore them for being unreasonable, which makes them get angrier, so they shout louder. The net result is that politics feels increasingly distant and alien to the protesters, while those in power are made to feel that these are people to be governed and not engaged with.
Make no mistake that a political divide is growing between the victims of austerity and those who have not been touched by it, and the Tories winning an election has not changed this. Anyone who wants to reach any kind of political consensus needs to make these two groups talk, which currently they are not.
The main event of the conference was Prime Minister David Cameron's speech, which he primarily used to attack the new Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn was also present in Manchester, but he was addressing the same protesters that the Tories refused to acknowledge. In many ways, Corbyn is the opposite of the protestors: quiet, impersonal, and from a mainstream political party.
Corbyn's election as Labour leader was because he engaged with this faction of society that the other mainstream politicians ignore, they flocked into the Labour Party to carry Corbyn into the leadership. Now Corbyn is trying to reasonably convoy the anger and hurt of these people to the establishment. However, the establishment are not listening to Corbyn either and would scare people by calling Corbyn a threat to national security.
When the angry try and engage with the political process in a constructive way, through political changes such as electing Corbyn, they told either that they are stupid, that their opinions are dangerous or that they are traitors. I am still not sure what the Tories believe is a reasonable way to object to their policies. Presumably it is as meekly as possible so that any objections can be ignored.
Questions remain of how well Corbyn will go down with the electorate as a whole, but so far he has done well at representing the views of this angry section of society that have been ignored for so long. Corbyn is trying to avoid a violent confrontation in the future by addressing the social problems of austerity. However the establishment do not want to listen to him.
If the Tories do not want to talk to the protesters about their objections then they can talk to Corbyn. If they do not want to talk to him either, then the divide will grow until something snaps and violence breaks out. The post-war consensus was supposed to the stop extreme politics of the left and right and the violent political uprisings that had dogged the first half the twenty century. If the Tories want to tear up the last remnants of the post-war consensus and silence any objection, then they invite a return to the extremes and violence of the past. This is what will happen if there is no constructive dialogue.
I would prefer engagement with the protesters through the established political channels as the best means to address the social problems of austerity. The choice of doing that directly, or through Corbyn, is left to the Tory party. The one thing which is certain is that pretending that no one is suffering under austerity and Cameron's leadership will not heal the growing social divide. Only constructive engagement can do this.