As Conservatives return home from their annual conference, they have good reasons to feel cheerful. Their national insurance increase on workers, empty shelves and involuntary conga lines at garage forecourts have barely dented their polling. The latest YouGov survey, reporting on Thursday morning, put them on 39% against Labour’s 31%. Clearly, something remarkable is going on.
No matter what is thrown at the Tories and what they throw at us, their lead remains constant. It’s almost the new normal. So how are we to understand their seemingly permanent polling leads? Is it because they match up with the interests of the majority of voters? Have millions of people – mainly former Labour voters – embraced the Conservative party’s war on woke, its authoritarianism and its gutting of welfare provision?
It’s little mystery to the prime minister why the Tories won the last election handsomely. Knowing Jeremy Corbyn was divisive and the opposition was split between different second referendum offerings on Brexit, Johnson had the comparably easy task of uniting the leave side of the equation. A task he set about with theatrics and fireworks, expelling remain-minded MPs, shutting down parliament and suggesting that he could ignore international law to get Brexit done. This most unserious of politicians was able to demonstrate an uncharacteristic earnestness on this one issue. And he won. Most Tories accept this, but differ on the whys and wherefores.
Reflecting on his defeat of Laura Pidcock in North West Durham, Richard Holden advanced what we might call a lazy Labour hypothesis. He claimed to have been up against a local Labour party accustomed to taking its voters for granted and doing little for them. Corbyn and Brexit was the final straw for many, and they made the switch. Holden, however, was under no illusion that their support was conditional. The Tories would have to deliver for seats like his. Transport links, local public services and money for the police and schools were key to making the Tory revolution permanent.
James Frayne, of PR specialists Public First, weighed in, warning Tories against mistaking their new constituents for foot soldiers in the war on woke – arguing that, while these new working-class voters abhorred any notion of “metropolitan excesses”, they were otherwise mostly “unbothered by social change”. This aside, they offered the Tories the scope to carry on as usual. Because these constituents all knew someone who “gamed” the social security system, Frayne argued, the government would find ample support for new assaults on welfare. On public transport, he reasoned, so-called “red wall-ers” were not that fussed. Few used trains and most didn’t bother with buses, so no need to go the extra mile on infrastructure spending. Tax cuts, however, were good because these voters don’t like wasteful public sector spending. In other words, apart from minding one’s Ps and Qs so as not to offend their new support, there was nothing to learn. Or indeed, a compulsion to do anything new. Meet the new Tory voters, just like old Tory voters.
This opposition of interests and values also plays out in the cabinet. Johnson’s haphazard big spending squares off against the fiscal hawks of the Treasury and Rishi Sunak in particular, a debate in which “the values” seem to have the upper hand. Brexit got delivered and the country is out of the EU, with only passport covers and HGV driver shortages to show for it. Coronavirus can recede into the background, now the vaccine has been rolled out, along with, the Tories hope, the memories of the tens of thousands needlessly dead. But there is nothing else. No visible signs of levelling up, no visible signs that the left behind places are leading from the front. Yet their support remains solid, appearing to bear out Frayne’s do-nothing analysis.
The Conservatives can also rely on Britain’s ageing population to provide an unwavering bulwark of support. As is well documented, for various reasons – property, pensions and liberation from work chief among them – retired people are disproportionately predisposed towards the Tories. Not simply because they are (or were) the party of the triple lock and remain committed to stoking property prices, but because Toryism, particularly in Boris Johnson’s guise, appeals to the anxieties at the heart of their social position.
As many scholars over the decades have noted, populist and far-right political formations tend to appeal more to small business owners than other social layers. The competition they face from larger competitors and/or wage expectations of employees can put them out of business. This sublimates into an authoritarian politics that, on the surface, delivers stability and certainty, while promising action against outsider groups identified with change or the dread of the unknown.
Millions of pensioners interestingly now inhabit a similar place. In my book, Falling Down: The Conservative Party and the Decline of Tory Britain, I argue that fixed pension incomes and disproportionate property ownership leaves them feeling vulnerable. The Tories seem to offer a salve, shielding the old from the direct cuts to their living standards from David Cameron’s leadership until today, while doing less for the working-age population: this is the key to understanding the differing appeal of Johnson’s populist politics to different age groups.
It’s amazing to think that someone like Johnson, easily the most chaotic figure ever to have occupied No 10, is the beneficiary of a desire for certitude. And yet this is where politics is in the 2020s. The old are mostly spared direct assaults on their living standards, while those of working age bear the costs and run the risks. Generational conflict is here, and unless Labour and other parties take off their blinkers about the “red wall” and see what is really powering stubborn Tory support, the longer the political dominance of Johnson and his successors will last.