Poverty is all over Manchester, but the Tories refuse to see it

MPs should be visiting the city's food banks - not gloating in a conference hall guarded by military snipers

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The Independent Online

This year’s Conservative Party Conference in Manchester was never going to be an uneventful affair. Sure enough, yesterday, an estimated 80,000 people marched through the streets of Manchester to oppose the cuts that the Conservative government are imposing. 

At first, holding such an event in Labour heartland seems mildly ridiculous. Perhaps Moscow should host the next World Pride? Or the ‘Slut Walk’ should stroll through the streets of Mecca? I hear that #FreeTheNipple is all the rage there, too. The ingredients in this recipe for disaster include one free-range egg (thrown) and a sprinkling of horrendous quotes from senior party members. Whipped up into a controversy, this hellish conference confection is finished off with a dusting of abusive protesters. 

The bulk of headlines have inevitably focused on a small minority who give all political activists a bad name. Spitting on people and calling them scum is absolutely never acceptable. Still, stomping into a crowd of socialist protesters brandishing an image of Margaret Thatcher can only be described as an attention-seeking provocation. Boris Johnson took the opportunity to embarrass himself once more by calling protesters “mob of assorted crusties with nose-rings”. This from the man who is supposed to represent London - one of the most vibrant and diverse cities in the world. 

In actual fact, the location of the annual gathering couldn’t be more perfect. Holding these conferences in places like Manchester is designed to get MPs out of the Westminster bubble. Being forced to confront the grim reality of austerity is exactly what some of these MPs need. Instead of hastily crumpling their blue lanyards into satchels and retreating into taxpayer funded hotels, they should be brave enough to listen to the other side of the argument. Even if they themselves do not wish to be seen - there is so much that they must see. 

As the event stumbles from one controversy to another, there is a sense that the real scandal has gone unnoticed. How many photos of MPs visiting local youth groups, hospitals or food banks have we seen? Not many. Instead of gloating over their election win inside an arena guarded by military snipers, they should be venturing out into communities and listening to their concerns. Poverty is in no way an issue that is confined to the north of England, but there is a sense that the Conservatives are completely uninterested in traditionally Labour areas. A Conservative MP has not represented a constituency in central Manchester for over 50 years, but this doesn’t mean that these people don’t matter. Not everyone is wearing a pig mask or holding a placard. Some people just want to feel listened to. 

At present, we are a nation that is politically divided. The frustration in the north has sent people hurtling to the left and far-right in search of answers. In any dispute, someone has to make the first move, and as elected politicians, the Conservatives should be trying to bridge these divisions - not creating new ones. The Tories are missing a massive opportunity to meet people from a different part of the UK that are on the receiving end of these brutal cuts. Hiding away is not only easy but cowardly. 

By ignoring the real issues and casually insulting protesters, the Conservatives are perpetuating the very champagne-sipping stereotype that they are constantly trying to avoid. Northerners are frustrated because they feel as though the Tories have been spitting on them for years. After this ridiculous pantomime of a conference, the Conservatives have revealed that they are out of touch with the north and intolerant of difference. They have egg on their faces, and it’s not the kind that you can simply wipe off.