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Laurie Penny: A divided society

The chasm in our society is no longer between left and right, but between rich and poor.

For all the talk of one-nation Conservatism, the shadow-play of social injustice begins as soon as you step on to the train to the Tory party conference. Flinging my huge rucksack between the nearest doors just as the Birmingham train is about to pull away, I find myself moving through the low-lit hush of the first-class carriages. Wobbling through the half-empty aisles, I spot two Conservative councillors and several well-known columnists from the Times, the Guardian and the Telegraph curled comfortably in the spacious armchairs, over newspapers and coffee -- but through two sets of sliding doors are the cheaper seats.

Back here, it's stressful and there's not enough space. Standard class on the 8.50 Virgin Trains service is crowded with shift workers, students heading back to college after weekends at home -- and protesters. People from all corners of the country have given up their weekends to attend the national anti-cuts, pro-welfare demonstration convened by the Right to Work campaign and many of them are squeezed into the narrow red pens of Virgin's stock, shut off from the elbow-room of first class by a surcharge that makes all the difference. I drift off into a disturbing dream that Richard Branson is now running the welfare state, and several lurching delays later the denizens of standard class stumble out into Birmingham New Street, rumpled and irritable as only the British public can be after two hours crammed into a rolling metaphor for the state of the nation.

By noon, I am huddled in a car park under a dirty formica sky with several thousand welfare recipients, public-sector workers, local kids and union reps, getting thoroughly and miserably rained on. The press has dismissed the protest as union-led and union-run, because we now live in a world where "trade-union member" is a term of insult, but most of those I meet walking to the march assembly point are unaffiliated citizens. Kathryn, a teacher, says that this is her first protest since the Stop The War march in 2003. "It's mine, too," says Margaret, a retired social worker, who is marching alongside a gang of teenagers from local comprehensive schools. "I don't normally get involved in things like this, but this time, with these cuts, I just felt like I had to say something." "We've got to say something," agrees Kathryn. "It's better than staying quiet."

Everything's entirely quiet in the foyer of the Jury's Inn hotel where politicians and lobbyists are sipping tea in between fringe events. "It's hard to see how any protest will make much of a difference," says one Conservative MP, who refuses to be named. "Everybody knows that we have to make cuts anyway, so nobody's going to take much notice." Other delegates at the bar have heard that there's some sort of ruckus going on in the street, but the retreat into Tory bunker mentality has already begun. Despite this being the first conference in power the Conservatives have held for 14 years, the mood is far from triumphant -- at the fringe events, ministers are already on the back foot, defending the coalition's planned cuts to welfare and public services as calmly as possible.

Back at the march, a crosspatch cross section of British society is voicing its soggy dissent: pensioners grumble about the vehemence of some of the speakers while eating scotch eggs from plastic bags, and dreadlocked students share flasks of tea and foil-wrapped sandwiches with middle-aged mothers pushing prams. There's a curious sense of timelessness to the event. Some of the union reps clearly think they're back in the 1980s, and a dour close-harmony folk band is telling us all about the Hard Times of Olde England, but as the march moves off, it is led by disabled people in wheelchairs and their carers, determined to "show that we're suffering, too". At back of the folk band, moreover, is a man who everyone is trying very hard to ignore, because he is brandishing and occasionally honking through a vuvuzela, an item that seems in 2010 to have finally replaced the pitchfork as the prop of choice for the global working class attempting to annoy and terrify the bourgeoisie.

Meanwhile, just feet away inside the secure zone, behind a wall of steel cordons and police dogs, about the same number of warm, dry conference delegates are, and I'm not making this up, watching some contemporary dance. Specifically, a trio of twee pseudo-ballerinas in floaty saris from something called the Arts Conference, enacting modern interpretations of North Indian traditional dances with very serious expressions. They have been hired to twirl very slowly around the main stage before Francis Maude comes on to explain the "big society", and as he hasn't got a lot to say, they've clearly been instructed to take their time. The audience clap, polite and bewildered. Outside in the rain, the people who actually have to live in the "big society" are already howling for reprieve.

You couldn't have asked for a starker, more cliched illustration of the difference between the political elites and the rest of us if you'd given a toddler a fistful of red and blue crayons and told it to draw a picture of a divided society. The lines being drawn are wobbly and childish, but they are lines of pain and anger, and like the etchings of a traumatised child, they deserve to be paid attention to. The chasm in our society is no longer between left and right. The chasm is between rich and poor, and it's growing, dividing those members of the elite, including the liberal elite, for whom the coming cuts are an abstract if regrettable concept, and the people whose jobs and homes and families are under threat.

Most of the latter have not been able to afford the £400 accreditation process for access to the Conservative conference centre, with its finger-food receptions and winsome catered round tables to discuss whether central government should pull an awkward or merely resolved expression while tearing the heart out of the welfare state and refusing to share the financial burden amongst the wealthy. As delegates and journalists at the Demos grill nibble profiteroles and ask Greg Clark MP why he won't be slightly more forthright about shrinking the state, they seem not to have realised how much they are already resented by a good deal of ordinary people. Either that, or they simply don't care.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty
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Why is Theresa May wasting time and money on the Article 50 case?

The Prime Minister has wasted time, money and weakened her position for no good reason. 

The question of who has the power to pull the Article 50 trigger – the executive or the legislature – is still rumbling at the Supreme Court, but yesterday’s vote renders the matter somewhat otiose. 

461 MPs voted in favour of a motion supporting the government’s timetable for triggering Article 50, with just 89 dissidents, with 23 Labour MPs and Ken Clarke joining Caroline Lucas, the nine Liberal Democrats and the SNP in voting against the motion. 

“MPs hand May 'blank cheque' for Brexit” is the Telegraph’s splash. “Hooray! MPs say yes to EU exit” roars the Express. “Victory for PM: Commons backs May on Brexit” is the i’s take. “Day MPs spoke for Britain” is the Mail’s splash, while the Guardian goes for the somewhat more sedate “MPs back government timetable to trigger Article 50” below the fold.

But that doesn’t mean that the deliberations of David Neuberger and the rest of the Court don’t matter. If the Court rules that Article 50 does represent a loss of rights not provided for in the referendum, that requires a vote of the legislature – and that means both houses of Parliament and an full Act of Parliament. 

It’s entirely possible that the Supreme Court could rule that Article 50 does entail a loss of rights BUT that the legislature had already weighed in by voting to have a referendum – Neuberger described this as the “hole” in the claimants’ case – but the whole affair raises questions of Theresa May’s judgement. It’s not clear what the government has gained by appealing a judgement rather than seeking parliamentary approval. It is clear that the government has wasted both money and time on the court case, when a parliamentary majority was always at hand.

There's a bigger risk to the PM, too. If the Supreme Court judgement limits executive power further, or rules that not only Westminster, but the devolved legislatures, must also vote on whether to pull the Article 50 trigger, the PM’s pugnacious manner could put Brexit – and her premiership – in some jeopardy. 

TROUBLE AHEAD

Speaking of the PM…Theresa May is interviewed in today’s FT by George Parker and Lionel Barber. Among the topics: why she gave George Osborne the push, whether or not she’s a “control freak”, and why she once compared herself to Elizabeth I. 

But the striking moment is the brief appearance of the old Remain-backing May, with her warning that the nations of the EU27 “don’t want to see others looking to break away and to vote to leave in the way the UK has done” making the negotiations over Britain’s Brexit deal trickier than many – including May herself – are often willing to admit publicly. 

DERAILING GRAYLING

Chris Grayling is under fire after the Evening Standard’s Pippa Crerar revealed that he blocked Sadiq Khan’s takeover of London’s suburban railways not in order to look out for passengers, but to keep his grubby Labour hands off it. Bob Neil, the Conservative MP for Bromley, demanded that Theresa May sack the Transport Secretary at PMQs yesterday. Over at CityMetric, Jonn is very angry about the whole thing.

SO, EVERYONE, THEN? 

Another Theresa May interview, this time with Fraser Nelson and James Forsyth in the Spectator. She has some sharp words for the Civil Service, accusing officials of trying to second-guess her and to quantify everything. Particularly exercising her: Whitehall’s attempt to quantify what the “just managing” she wants to help means in terms of income (£18k-£21k).  She says it means anything from “holding down two or three jobs in order to make ends meet”, to those worried about job security, to homeowners “worried about paying the mortgage”.

SLING YOUR HYKE

Polls are open in the Sleaford and North Hykeham by-election, an ultra-safe Conservative seat that voted to leave the European Union by 60 per cent to 40 per cent. But all attention is being focused on the battle for second and third place, with Ukip expecting to steal second from Labour. Meanwhile, Labour fears they may be pushed into fourth by the Liberal Democrats.

OUR STEEL, SAVED?
A deal has been struck to save the steelworks at Port Talbot, with Tata Steel commiting to keep production there running, provided that workers agree to close off the pension scheme they inherited from British Steel to new workers. “Tata and unions agree rescue plan for Port Talbot steelworks” is the FT’s splash.

MATTE-OH

Matteo Renzi has officially resigned as Italian Prime Minister after two-and-a-half years, the fourth-longest serving PM in the history of the Republic. 

DFID CONSULTANCIES

Private consultancies working in international development will be forced to disclose their fees and salaries, Priti Patel has vowed after a Timesinvestigation into the millions spent on consultancies by the department. 

SEE? IMMIGRATION CREATES JOBS

The Home Affairs Select Committee will launch an inquiry into public attitudes to immigration today. Committee chair Yvette Cooper says that it will be “a different kind of inquiry, looking outward at the country, not inward at the government.” MPs will tour the country talking to the public about the issue. 

DOMINIC, AGGRIEVED

Dominic Grieve, the former Attorney-General, has called on Theresa May to dissociate herself from the Mail’s “vitriolic abuse” of judges in the Supreme Court case. Anushka Asthana has the story in the Guardian.

CAMERON, INC

David Cameron has set up a limited company to manage his speaking engagements and private ventures in retirement. He has also sold his memoirs, albeit for what is believed to be a lower fee than that secured by Tony Blair for The Journey. Michael Savage has the story in the Times.

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT

Christmas is coming! And the Christmas sandwich is already here. The NS team – including our editor – share their thoughts on the best and the worst.

MUST READS

Britain is heading for the hardest of Brexits, says Charles Grant

Julia wonders if Brexit has transformed British politics just as Scotland’s referendum did

Labour and Tory MPs alike fear what Brexit could unleash, says George

This originally appeared in today's Morning Call: get it in your inboxes Monday through Friday - sign up here.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.