It’s been a long four years since the Conservatives last visited Birmingham for their annual party conference.
In 2018, EU in Brum, the group I chair, provided a cacophony of noise and protest to signify our opposition to Brexit. That day we were confined outside Birmingham’s Council House by the Floozie in the Jacuzzi but still managed to gain international attention.
All manner of issues
A lot has changed, both nationally and locally: Brexit was rammed through, we’ve gone through the heights of Covid, and now the cost-of-living crisis is upon us. Happily for Birmingham, the construction site has finally moved from Centenary Square, giving us Brummies a beautiful view of the new PWC building in place of the brutalist Central Library. Although I miss the Yardbird, Albert’s Schloss has so far proved to be a decent replacement.
The fact that things have opened up also gave great opportunity to those seeking to make their voices heard, on all manner of issues. A lot of people are angry with the Conservatives: for Brexit; for the way they’ve managed the economy over the last 12 years; for the way they handled Covid; for their dangerous innovations that cost jobs and lives. There was a lot to be angry about even before Kwasi Kwarteng’s gamble on dropping the 45p tax rate.
It was unclear, however, whether these passions would spill into violence: I found myself agreeing with the sentiments that my friend and colleague, Bryan Manley-Green, expressed on this site a few days ago.
I was concerned that the laws against protest brought in by former Home Secretary Priti Patel might lead to disturbing scenes outside the New Central Library. I was tempted to stay away, but at the same time, I could not let my friends down.
On the way towards the conference entrance, I saw Penny Mordaunt striding in the opposite direction. Perhaps to New Street for an early exit. I wondered whether Mordaunt, had she won the leadership contest, would have made the same splash as Liz Truss has done in her first month as prime minister.
When I arrived in Centenary Square, I was greeted by the sight of a big tent surrounded by iron barriers with blue, Conservative Party logo-daubed, cloth over them. Through the air rang out the unmistakable tune of the Benny Hill theme, blasting out of a sound system belonging to SODEM and Steve Bray. The voice of the Stop Brexit movement himself got on the microphone to ‘greet’ delegates by giving a false update on fringe events about ‘how to kill the poor quicker’.
As SODEM activists held up placards and danced to Yakety Sax, an amusing reworking of The Chicken Song and I Predict a Riot by the Kaiser Chiefs, I was struck by the other campaigns in the area.
Despite Covid restrictions ending months ago, there was still one or two campaigners complaining; their cries of “traitors” and “the Great Reset” to some delegates betrayed their perspective. Meanwhile, a lady in a witch’s outfit cackled. There was also a protest against the destruction of nature and wildlife.
But when asked by a journalist to say something into the microphone, the young people yelled about “getting the Tory scum out of Brum” when the reporter wanted to hear about their particular campaign.
Most chilling was the silent Smart Motorways Kill campaign, which called for hard shoulders to be restored. A dozen or so campaigners held up placards and, most disturbingly, mock coffins emblazoned with questions like: “WILL YOU LISTEN WHEN IT’S A COACH FULL OF SCHOOL KIDS?” The campaigners didn’t have to say much; their materials spoke for themselves.
There was a steady stream of Conservative Party delegates making their way into the Big Tent. It was easy to tell who was allowed into the conference: they might have a lanyard; they looked well-fed; broad-shouldered; they had the air of privilege and prosperity around them. All those that couldn’t get in yelled insults and questions.
I watched a group set up for their demonstration. They held red and yellow flags, and a roaring yellow generator was brought to life. Little did I realise that it would overshadow everything else on this Sunday afternoon.
Three protests collide
Before the weekend, I must confess that I had thought little, if at all, about the war in the Tigray between Eritrea and Ethiopia. However, I soon came to learn of the horrors visited on this part of Africa. A young woman yelled into the microphone about rape, murder, people being denied food, electricity, money, and contact with the outside world.
A backing group recited each of her cries: for Liz Truss to intervene to stop the war; declarations that the Ethiopian leader was Hitler; that Eritrea and Ethiopia are failed states; that the Tigray was as important as Ukraine; that Tigray Lives Matter. It suddenly made my leafletting about a fringe event about the Conservative Party’s relationship with Europe feel somewhat tame.
As this protest continued, more noise was heard and different flags started to become visible.
In recent weeks, the shocking death of Mahsa Amini, apparently after a beating by Iranian police for not observing Iran’s strict dress code for women, has prompted protests around the world, as well as in Iran. The issue had now arrived in Centenary Square. Although noise of the protest was drowned out by the loud generator and louder microphone, I could hear music being played and songs being sung.
The two protests seemed to circle each other; would there be a fight?
To add to the tension, red and yellow flares were lit off to represent Eritrea and the Tigray. Acrid smoke filled the air; a small child had to have a flare taken from him by a concerned parent. It felt like a football match, not a protest.
Then the People’s Assembly showed up too.
The recently-opened Midland Metro up through Broad Street had been stopped in preparation for The Big One that was the People’s Assembly. Protestors from the three disparate campaigns streamed through the street and police urged me to move away from the ‘sterilised area’.
So I sought to find my friends, who were somewhere in the throng surrounding the conference entrance. There was an angry mob standing outside The Exchange, where the registration for the conference was being held. This seemed a recipe for disaster. Young Conservatives continued to be heckled whilst a gang of drummers were led by a young man in sunglasses acting as if he were conducting the CBSO.
It felt like things were about to break down, like most of Britain these days. It was my turn to retreat.
I returned 30 minutes later to find that the People’s Assembly had dispersed. Whilst the Tigray protest continued, there was light music and the atmosphere was less heady. Meanwhile, a few solitary protestors sat opposite the conference entrance with a banner mourning Mahsa Amini. I met with a friend who reported that they had been accused of being ‘Tory scum’ for the simple crime of wearing a lanyard allowing them entrance to the ICC.
That being said, it seemed that the feared violence had not materialised. West Midlands Police did an admirable job of making sure that the intermingling protests didn’t lead to further trouble.
To some extent, the main protest appeared to be of the performative kind: the same slogans we’ve heard before, the same messages that will be ignored by the same politicians. Ultimately, the Conservative Party leadership is not scared of the People’s Assembly, SODEM, campaigns about events in Iran and the Tigray, or even protests about nature and smart motorways.
Instead, they’re scared of other Conservatives, especially their MPs who – unlike everyone else in Birmingham – have the power to force U-turns. And that power creates as chaotic an atmosphere within the Conservative Party Conference as three simultaneous protests did outside it.