I’ve been at the Conservative party conference this week. As you may have seen reported by the media, there’s been a group of protesters outside the venue most of the time, although they tend not to be there earlier in the day and have usually dispersed by early evening so I haven’t encountered them at close quarters all that much. And, despite some of the media stories, I personally hadn’t seen anything that I would say crosses the bounds of acceptability.
This evening was different. And possibly instructive.
It’s been raining most of the evening, and I managed to miss out on the canapes at the Tech Central reception, so I decided that instead of walking straight back to my hotel I’d stop at the Subway just across the road from the venue and have something to eat there.
I wasn’t alone in that. There were several other conference-goers in the cafe, plus a group of protesters as well as regular, non-political customers. Initially, there wasn’t any problem. But then something happened to change that.
I’m not entirely sure what the trigger was, because I was fiddling with my phone (tweeting about the rain!) rather than following the conversation around me. But it suddenly kicked off between a group of female protesters and a man sitting at the next table, and before I knew it there was a full-scale shouting match going on.
It turned out that he was one of the staff at the conference, and took exception to being labelled “scum” when, as he pointed out, he’d done exactly the same job at the Labour and Lib Dem conferences and would next be off to Scotland to work at the SNP conference.
The protest group were not placated by that, and instead condemned him for being a class traitor for daring to work for us Tory scum.
At this point, and possibly somewhat unwisely, another conference-goer (aka, “more Tory scum”) intervened, asking everyone to just calm down a bit and let people eat their meals in peace. As you might expect, this didn’t work. Although a man who had been part of the group of protesters muttered “Actually, I agree with them on that”, and got up and walked out, leaving just the women to continue abusing every Tory scum in earshot. Almost immediately after he left, the police arrived.
I should point out here that there was no violence or threat of violence, even implied. Somewhat bizarrely, even, we were all sitting at a group of tables in a corner of the cafe and, despite being in touching distance of each other, no hands were raised. It was all purely verbal.
However, I’m sure it wasn’t pleasant for everyone else in the cafe, and when the police arrived they asked the protesters to leave. One of them then started abusing the police, at which point she was rather more firmly instructed to step outside, and the rest soon followed.
After they’d gone, I got chatting to the man who’d been the catalyst for all that. He apologised for saying something which had triggered the incident, but, as he put it, he’d been roundly abused every day just for doing his job, and he was sick of it. And all he did was say so, which resulted in yet more abuse.
I don’t object to people protesting. Nor do I mind the street theatre aspect of it with banners and placards and drums and whistles. I even (whisper it quietly) found the TV images of Boris being pelted with plastic balls rather amusing. OK, it’s a bit childish and unnecessary, but it isn’t in the same league as eggs or stones. Taking abuse is part of a politician’s lot in life, and most of the time it’s good-humoured enough not to worry too much about.
But it hasn’t been OK all the time this week. To be sure, most of the protesters have been careful to stay within the boundaries. But the line has been crossed on too many occasions as well. It isn’t OK to spit on people as they arrive at a conference. It isn’t OK to abuse people for working at a conference. And it isn’t OK to defend the people who do those things.
We also have to ask ourselves why some elements of the left of British politics are so virulently illiberal and intolerant. If Jeremy Corbyn really wants to usher in a new, kinder politics then he has to start by cleaning out his own back yard.