Politics

'I want to stand against Jacob Rees-Mogg': Big Issue vendor reports from frontline of party conferences

Our man on the inside, vendor Will Payne, takes the pulse of the Tory and Labour party conferences

Illustration of Rishi Sunak, Keir Starmer and vendor Will Payne

Images: Alamy/Exposure Photo Agency.

I’m Will Payne, a Big Issue vendor in Bristol. I’m travelling up to Manchester for the Conservative Party conference, and Liverpool for Labour’s, as a speaker invited by Specsavers. They have a campaign to make healthcare more accessible to homeless people. They sorted out my eyes and so, with 20/20 vision, off I went.

Conservative Party Conference, Manchester

Right off the train in Manchester, you already feel the police presence. As we near the venue area, I see so many police vans and horses. You know when you go to a border and there’s massive barbed wire fencing? It looks like a prison. But the people inside look like the poshest prisoners in the world.

There are loads of protesters outside too. It feels like going to the away end when you’re playing Millwall.

But although I’m not a Tory, I am curious. Upon entry and mingling I encounter some northern delegates who are very angry at Rishi Sunak, especially for fudging HS2. They say he knew ages ago it would be scrapped but waited to kill it in front of us.

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The only person less popular than him is Suella Braverman.

There’s a message they give me to pass on to Big Issue readers: they are shocked by her language about migrants. Her inflammatory language is affecting them all. They say, every time she opens her mouth, a Tory seat loses 2,000 votes.

People are getting a lot off their chests and there is a lot of gallows humour. It makes me think of a cross between Carry On Up the Kyber and the Titanic. There’s that British stiff upper lip even though all of them know they’re doomed. Every Tory I speak to has already thrown their hands up. I think they’d like to be more centrist. Hardline Tories don’t appeal to anyone any more, not even their own children.

So to my speech in a lavish side room. I am on a panel with Felicity Buchan MP, Adam Sampson, CEO of the Association of Optometrists, and Specsavers representatives. All five of us get together and shake hands, going over the order of things. Felicity Buchan has a homelessness brief.

It’s typical of the Tory party to put someone in a job who’s a fish out of water. I think: you’re the MP for Kensington, one of the richest boroughs in Britain, you’re really posh and yet you’re in charge of solving the homelessness crisis. But I want to be nice to her. I want to find out what her visions are. She is friendly and I tell her I have lots of ideas to end homelessness – call me any time.

I meet Lord John Bird who does the welcome and speaks most eloquently. When everyone else is ‘order order’, he brings chaos! He hands out his little mini manifestos for a Ministry of Poverty. Oh they are beautifully minuscule. He’s a very charismatic man. He’s got a high mischief factor, which I adore, because so do I.

The speeches go well, I am more nervous than usual because this many Tories at once is overwhelming. 

Afterwards we have a very pleasant vegan Indian feast. We find out PJ Harvey is playing in the city so stop outside to see if we can hear anything. Michael Gove walks past us. Then Nigel Farage bumps into us. He is going to a disco. Priti Patel was there too – you can see videos of them dancing on YouTube. Now there’s a match made in Hades.

Big Issue vendor Will Payne
Will Payne. Image: Exposure Photo Agency

Labour Party Conference, Liverpool

The following week, it’s off to Liverpool I go.

In Manchester, as soon as you got to the station, you knew something was up. Whereas in Liverpool, it feels like a normal day.

The Mersey air is blustery and beautiful as I saunter into the arena for the next Specsavers Q&A. I meet lots of relaxed delegates with openly positive body language. People are laughing and joking a lot. Even the union lot. They are confident and relaxed. The mood is groovy, happy and bouncy. The Tory conference felt like you were going to Alcatraz; the Labour one feels like going to a gig in comparison.

One thing I notice: there is a sense of Labour trying to be more British. There are Union flags. The Tories have used that a lot, but I think Labour is trying to capture middle England to appeal to older voters and rid the land of hopeless Tories. They’ve done their homework.

The panel I’m on is so much more relaxed and natural, just the right size and there are excellent vegan nibbles. All the speakers and audience were great.

Afterwards, we went to a wonderful pizzeria where my vegan pizza was orgasmic, topped with sweet potato fries and mayo pesto.

So at the conferences, it was two very different parties and moods. The Tories should have their next conference in Torquay at Fawlty Towers because there will be so few of them left as MPs.

I had decided beforehand that I want to stand as an MP at the next election. Spending time with MPs has made that seem a much more realistic proposition. I really want to stand against Jacob Rees-Mogg, MP for North East Somerset and the 18th century. Having someone who’s homeless take on a fool like him, I think it’d be a really good barometer for the country. The only thing a Tory understands is a swift kick in the ballots.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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