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.