It's 2.30AM on Monday morning in Manchester's Midland Hotel. At the cavernous central bar, Tories are staggering about with their arms around each others' shoulders, or sitting half-collapsed on chairs, or standing in circles loudly talking into each others' faces, or queuing five deep to buy rounds from flustered bar staff. Inoffensive lounge music drifts through speakers and over the melee.
The Grade II* listed, Grand Budapest Hotel-style Edwardian building was playing host to the Conservative Party conference's opening night piss-up. Almost to a man – and it was mainly men – they were wearing blue suits with white shirts and no tie, giving it the feel of a very plush last train home from the City of London on a Friday night. When I interrupted party members for a chat, they were very friendly and keen to dispel the popular stereotype – that the Conservative Party is a bunch of braying poshos who treat the poor like a race of hopeless serfs.
"We're not evil!" said one.
And that, basically, is the message the party at large has been spending the last few days trying to transmit. They don't want to cut benefits to fuck the poor over; they want the poor to get better off so they don't need benefits. In his speech to the conference on Monday, George Osborne claimed that the Conservatives are the workers' party – "the only true party of labour". Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt may have given away what this really means when he said that benefit cuts would encourage Brits to work as hard as Chinese people – evoking thoughts of workers threatening mass suicide to protest their working conditions. More on message was International Development Secretary Justine Greening. Speaking to the Independent on Sunday, she said she wanted a "British Dream" to rival the American Dream, where anyone can achieve what they want through hard work.
The thing about dreams is that they're not real. Stalking the various conference venues and hotels hosting the Conservatives, it wasn't hard to find people for whom working hard hasn't necessarily got them what they want, if what they want is decent pay, job security and a job that doesn't involve cleaning carpets or clearing dead Peronis.
"Minimum wage," said one conference worker when I asked what he was earning. "It's not great, but..." he trailed off and gave a cheerful shrug. It didn't take me long to find several who said they were paid minimum wage or below the living wage. Some of the staffing agencies who provide the labour at the venues are happy to boast of their proficiency in hiring staff on temporary contracts on their websites. Research by KPMG in 2014 found that 90 percent of UK bar staff are paid below the living wage, as are 85 percent of waiters and waitresses, and 80 percent of catering assistants. Part time jobs are much more likely to pay below the living wage than permanent jobs are.
Thing is, this is where a lot of the jobs are; hospitality is Britain's fourth biggest industry. If the Tories are to accomplish their vision of full employment their way, there are going to have to be a lot of temporary, crappy jobs and people serving drinks that cost almost as much as they make in an hour.
On Tuesday morning at a Job Centre in Chorlton, a suburb of Manchester, Vee, a retired college teacher with cropped grey hair, was peering at the listings in the windows for a friend. One sign said: "Top Ten Reasons Why It's Great to Work in Hospitality," but the list itself was nowhere to be seen. "It's all just zero-hours contracts. It's totally exploitative," said Vee. "If anybody tells you they're good, they're not. It's easy to get takeaways and stuff until two in the morning, but proper jobs? No. It is difficult."
I was in Chorlton because in his conference speech the previous day, grasping for the "workers' party" mantle, George Osborne had painted a picture so touching that I wanted to see it for myself: "The last time we brought our conference here to Manchester, I slipped away from all the fringe meetings and the receptions to see something that reminds me why I do this job," he'd told the audience. "Across the way, beyond the cordon, in a nearby office block, something uplifting was taking place. People at the Job Centre were signing up for work. I sat down with a group of them, young and old, to talk to them about their futures. They were nervy at first; they weren't confident about themselves because life had given them precious few reasons for self-confidence. But as we talked about their new jobs they got more and more animated. They were excited about their future and proud to be in work. Proud to have a job. These are the people I'm fighting for."
I followed in the Chancellor's footsteps to see if the strivers visiting a Job Centre would tell me anything similarly uplifting. Unfortunately, that's not what I found.
"Pissed off" is how mustachioed Mike Brophy described his experience of the Job Centre. He thought it was a "waste of time" for anyone over a certain age, and listed an exhaustive diary of classes, seminars and appointments he must attend. "They try and wind you up so that they can sanction you[r benefits]," he said.
"Shite," says Mario when I ask how he finds the Job Centre. "I'm currently in a fight with them. I have a barrier that is a criminal record... I've told them this many, many, many times – 'My barrier is my criminal record, can you help me? I want to work. I don't want to be on benefits. I want to provide for myself.' – but they're not listening."
I asked Vee what she thought of the Tories positioning themselves as a party looking out for workers. "It's a joke, isn't it?" she wheezed through genuine, shocked laughter.
The Conservatives may now call themselves a workers' party, but their conference is still full of lobbyists and right-wing think-tanks holding fringe events such as "Good business: How can Conservatives deliver real competition?", "Making the UK the world's most competitive economy" and "Does caring about the poor require caring about inequality?" (I dropped in on that one and the answer was mostly "no").
But in finding out who this conference was really for, one event stuck out to me. The "Party in the sky" wasn't quite as exciting as it sounds, but it would be churlish to complain when the drinks are free. It was a party put on by "Let Britain Fly", a lobby group in favour of airport expansion backed by various large businesses and luxury brands. Free packets of fudge were given out bearing the message: "Don't fudge a decision on airport expansion.""It's important that when people think, 'Where shall I go to shop?' they can get to London quickly and easily," says the MD of Selfridges in this campaign video:
The MD of Harrods, meanwhile, warns that failure to build more airports could "prejudice London's premier location as an international luxury destination". The message is clear: if we don't forget about climate change and airport noise and just build some new airports right now, Russian oligarchs won't come to our capital to buy designer handbags, which would be a disaster.
The party was held in the Cloud 23 Bar, with floor-to-ceiling windows providing a view of the city, 23 floors up the Hilton Manchester Deansgate – part of a chain that's recently been accused of exploiting migrant workers and resisting unionisation.
This resurgent unionisation of hospitality workers is exactly the kind of thing that could be killed by the government's Trade Union Bill. At their conference, the Conservatives launched a new "Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists" movement for people who want to shut up and not grumble. They're also trying make it the law for strikers to be humiliated by having to wear armbands, and tell the police two weeks in advance if they plan to use social media – measures which Conservative MP David Davis said were better suited to Franco's Spain.
READ ON MOTHERBOARD: The Conservative Party Tried to Delete Their Old Speeches from the Web
Dave Turnbull, Unite Regional Officer for Hospitality workers in London, told me that the hotel industry is "anti-union and has essentially been engaged in [a] 30-year lock out of trade unions. As such, wages and conditions have been relentlessly driven down." The Trade Union Bill, he said, "legitimises employer hostility toward collective action" and "is really going to impact on the type of approach that is vital to campaigning on behalf of low paid and vulnerable workers".
The Tories insist they want to help badly-paid workers become better off. That's why they introduced a "National Living Wage" of £7.20/hour, coming in April of 2016. Never mind that it's not a living wage you can actually live on – being lower than what's considered an actual "living wage" (one that means you don't live in poverty) – or that millions of low-paid workers will actually be be thousands of pounds worse off because of cuts to working tax credits. And never mind that if you're under 25, it won't apply to you.
If the Conservatives are a party for workers, they're a party for the kind of workers expected to accept the magnanimity of their masters who give them boring, badly paid jobs. The options for people to take things into their own hands are being shut down.§
In the smoking area of the Midland, however, now at 2.50AM, it's easy enough to find young Tories who think the government is being far too generous. I speak to seemingly the only guy in the place with a midlands accent, who explains to me at length how the minimum wage is bad for workers because it makes it illegal to give someone a job if they're only able to do work that's worth, say, £3 per hour to someone. Of course, the very obvious absolute penury that £3 per hour would leave someone in doesn't seem to puncture the logic of his argument.
I ask his friend, "Are you really the workers' party?"
"Oh, oh, oh, absolutely!" he says.
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