There is something horrible, something almost unprecedentedly repellent about the language and demeanour of the Conservative Party conference this week. It is not so much the unreality, the way in which, inside a security bubble which, among other things, has prevented broadcasters from filming a huge counter-demonstration, the principal party of Government indulges in a politics in which evidence plays no part; in which the daily experiences of millions are discarded and ignored. It is not in the perverse spectacle of a party that speaks almost entirely for rentiers and speculators trying to advertise itself as being on the side of hard-working people.
The most sinister, most horrible thing about this conference – indeed about the Conservative Party – is the way in which the language of abuse – long part of the Tory lexicon – has reached a shrieking climax: hatred for the poor, the vulnerable, for those who depend on state help and support, and for those who do not conform to consensus views of mental health. Language that is deployed by those with the power to inflict gratuitous pain and hurt. We are told, for example, that those claiming job seekers’ allowance will be made to sign on every day. Never mind the practicalities, never mind the expensive travel, never mind the fact that job centres simply aren’t equipped to deal with this; evidence and reason are not what matters here. This is about the politics of wilfully humiliating and degrading the least fortunate in society, denying them their status as citizens. It is, put at its simplest and purest, the politics of abuse.
And when the DWP press office claims that changes to DLA are necessary to deal with widespread fraud when the reality is that fraud is minimal; or when Gove claims that people using food banks do so because of financial mismanagement; when Cameron describes a popular Labour policy as “nuts” and then makes a casual sneer about what he calls the “mental health lobby”, that is the politics of abuse.
It’s a politics that is designed, day after day, to remind the poor and vulnerable that they are worthless; to turn them into supplicants, eternally grateful for the crumbs thrown at them by whim of the privileged, walking on eggshells lest an unscripted expression of self-respect should result in your lifeline being cut. The politics of telling you over and over again that you are worthless, that – in a world of collective economic failure – your plight is your fault, through lack of character – a message delivered by those whose lives have been made comfortable by unearned trust funds. The politics of arbitrary sanction, in which trivial non-compliance means the removal of your means of living – even if you have a lifetime of paying tax and national insurance. The politics of abuse.
And this language is described as “populist”. When and how did this happen? What does this say about the society in which we live? I lived through the Thatcher years and remember the destructiveness; but I do not remember hatred of this intensity. We can talk about the media – we know what the tabloid press are and how bullying is their daily trade, but that is surely symptom as much as cause. When did we lose our sense of collective decency so completely that even some Labour politicians use this language and mask it as “reinventing Beveridge”? The strange thing is that in some areas we have made so much progress – we understand as a society the politics of racial or sexual discrimination so much better than we did. We are perhaps more senstitive to hate-speech, more considerate and inclusive in the language we use in our daily lives than ever before, although there is still an enormously long way to go. But this has somehow become separated from a political discourse that is saturated in abusive, demeaning language – a remote political class competing for an ever-smaller pool of voters, using ever-more abusive language to conceal this democratic failure.
Perhaps that is the answer. Perhaps it is the very remoteness of the political class – and especially the financial and media class – from the realities and casual decencies and solidarities of daily life that is the problem.
But at the absolute mildest, what we are seeing in Manchester is a collective failure of empathy on a colossal scale. I think it’s far worse, far more vicious than that; the rationality of the abuser, the serial bully, given political expression by a political party that cannot handle the failure of their economic and social programme, and so resort to victim-blaming and bullying instead. It is as if the Conservative Party exists to give every bigot, every bully, every purveyor of casual hate, a space in which they are free from calls to self-examination.
And – just perhaps – we are finally beginning to see a national political discourse that understands this; contrast the language of the Tories in Manchester with that of Labour in Brighton last week. Confident people do not demonise; perhaps it is grounds for optimism that after the equivocation of the Blair years, Labour is once again finding the language confidently to speak truth to power.
But the fact surely remains – if the language of the Tory Party conference is populist, then we as a society are in the most serious of crises.