It is ironic that the Tories’ policy of austerity that has cut public funding to the bone and ripped the heart out of so many towns does not appear to deter the voters, as the electorate seems to blame Labour, or perhaps it is that they blame the Labour councillors that have to deal with these cuts?
Yes, a couple of weeks ago the UK has had some nation-wide local authority and council elections, plus a by-election in Hartlepool and as pretty much predicted, Labour was wiped out in Hartlepool and across the north of England the Tories made masses of gains. It’s not a completely ruinous scenario as there have been some Labour gains in the south and interestingly Labour won 11 out of 13 mayoral posts across England. Which, naturally, the Conservatives are rectifying by changes to electoral law to make it more difficult for Labour to win – I think that’s called gerrymandering. Can that be stopped? Probably not with the 80-seat margin the Tories have in the House of Commons.
But the Labour losses appear especially devastating in the north where they are happening in areas that were once rock-solid Labour. Actually, Labour also did well in Wales, but overall, Thursday was, pretty much, a disaster for the party. And, sigh, predictably Labour had its usual internal punch-up, which is so eagerly taken up by the press and broadcast to all, with the sacking of their Chair and national campaigns co-ordinator Angela Rayner, who funnily enough, although she was the easy fall-guy of the moment has, nevertheless, survived for another day.
And yet, is it a campaign failure that has caused the collapse of Labour in the north? I don’t think so.
For the last few months much of the media that I have come across has set out the disaster that is Johnson, yet not an ounce of this has stuck. I could go into greater depth about Johnson and his Cabinet’s recent incompetence, and might still, because it must never ever be forgotten that this government’s ineffectiveness caused a huge number of deaths from Covid. However, for this piece I will set out some brief details of his moronic uselessness and then for the main part look at why, despite all that ineptitude, plus the sleaze, do not forget the sleaze, he still gets the votes.
Johnson and the Covid situation
The way Johnson tackled the Covid-19 pandemic must never be forgotten. It is not enough that the vaccination programme is a success, too many deaths have occurred, and it is solely the way Johnson led this country last year that has led to the UK having the worst death rate per capita in the world. He should in my opinion be tried in a court for gross negligence manslaughter. And why? Here are some reasons for my ire.
The UK was prepared and then again perhaps not The Global Health Security Index ranked the UK second in the world for pandemic preparedness, and yet Exercise Cygnus in 2016 found the UK was lacking capacity in dealing with any pandemic, and needed to look urgently at 4 key areas, plus take note of 22 recommendations. However, these recommendations were ignored and most of the equipment needed for this pandemic was inadequate, some of it long out-of-date, and it is clear that the UK was not prepared for a once in a 100-year event.
Failure at the very start to grasp the gravity Between January and March 2020 Johnson was more interested in writing a book than chairing Cobra (the British Government’s emergency response committee). It is usual for a Prime Minister to chair these meetings as, by their very nature, they are considered to be meetings for emergencies. Johnson missed 5 of those meetings. Basically, Johnson thought Covid would be similar to flu but to be fair his advisers were talking up the concept of herd immunity.
Delaying the start of the UK’s three lockdowns Had the UK imposed a lockdown on 16 March rather than 23 March modelling suggests that 30,000 lives could have been saved. Only after a model from Prof Neil Ferguson showed that continuing the course of herd immunity and ‘taking it on the chin’ would lead to 500,000 deaths did Johnson act. Similarly, Johnson resisted calls for a lockdown in September (it did not begin until the end of October) and again there was the Christmas fiasco of, first we could have Christmas and then, at the very last minute, we could not. But we could have one day. Numerous excess deaths were caused by these dithering delays.
Our borders remained open for months and months and months Johnson and his advisers thought that closing borders early on in the pandemic would be too extreme, and yet other countries who did control their borders from the start did well, especially New Zealand, South Korea and Singapore. And currently, look at how the Indian variant is leading to a rise in Covid cases. Why wasn’t India put on the red list earlier?
Supporting Cummings The British public took the first lockdown very seriously until, that is, there was a major error on Johnson’s part in supporting Dominic Cummings’ ill-advised jaunt to Durham and Barnard Castle. This undermined public confidence in lockdown rules as it appeared to be one rule for the elite and another for the rest of us.
The dysfunctional contracting culture and Test and Trace Do read my last post on this blog for the culture of cronyism in this government and the disgraceful waste of public money thrown at contracts, the worst typified by Dido Harding, someone who knows nothing of Public Health, heading up the test and trace system which, despite shed loads of money, has not been all that effective.
The Care Sector The discharge of older vulnerable NHS patients who had caught Covid whilst in hospital to care homes with equally frail and vulnerable residents who consequently caught Covid, is, in my opinion, a crime that someone should be accountable for.
Johnson and the sleaze situation The media, including some newspapers that usually support Johnson, has been full of the shenanigans surrounding Johnson and his partner Carrie’s refurb of the No 10 flat. Fascinating really, that the leader of our country, unlike leaders such as the American President, lives in a small flat. And yet it has an annual budget of £30,000 just for doing up the place in the manner the current PM and his wife or partner sees fit. Well, apparently £30,000 isn’t enough for Carrie as her refurb cost £200,000! Anyway, it’s not so much the cost as who actually paid for it, and which rich donor gave a loan to Johnson. Also, one hears that another loan was sought for a nanny for their 1-yr-old child. And all because he says he can’t manage on his salary of £150,000 a year!
Oh, and don’t forget several sources say that he allegedly said he’d rather see bodies pile up in their thousands than impose another lockdown in September. And last week it was announced that he is going to be investigated for his Caribbean holiday.
Yet none of this seems to matter to some voters. So, the question is why?
Why this support for Johnson and his government?
Johnson isn’t much liked by his colleagues, he doesn’t have many friends. And yet he has this buffoon and clown-like charisma that appears to go down well with the electorate. To many he seems likeable and pally, someone you could have a pint with. On closer examination much of his behaviour is absurd: his hair is badly cut and deliberately tousled; his clothes are rumpled; his demeanour shambolic; his way of speaking is at once halting and then rushed; he is a jester caught on a zip-wire; he is a parody of a politician. This man (and speak/read this with an incredulous up-lilt) is in charge of a country? Unfortunately, for us, this is Falstaff wearing the crown and not King Hal.
Apparently, Johnson has wanted to be Prime Minister since he was a child, and this desire was ably abetted by his schooling at Eton, which schools the elite and wealthy of this country. Obviously, Eton provides a good education, but it also endows its pupils with an abundance of confidence and absolute certainty that they are born to rule. After all, Johnson is the twentieth Prime Minister to have been educated at Eton, and the fifth since 1945. And they all get a lesson in how to get elected, in this instance, to their elite ‘Pop’ (a society comprising the prefects of Eton) entry to which is granted by the small number of Pop members. You learn to climb the greasy pole of popularity early there, and with their archaic uniform (and a separate one for Pop members) you might also wonder how this antiquated and privileged education can produce leaders for the 21st Century? Does it? Or is this school producing a narrow caste that is out of touch with modern-day matters.
The thing is we Brits, we do love a toff, and they really do seem to get the votes. But is this love of toffs the only reason the Tories continue to get votes, even with this buffoon in charge? It is not.
There is always a great deal of talk about the ‘working class’ in Labour circles, and in the media. The United Kingdom, pretty much, has been dominated by two parties for aeons: the Conservative & Unionist party and Labour. The Conservatives are for those inclined to the right while the working classes vote for Labour – simples. And when things do not go well for Labour, pundits and some politicians always speak or write about how Labour isn’t connecting with the working class, and reasons why it isn’t, and how and why it should, and so on and so on. However, it’s rare to find comments and pieces on, actually, the working class is different now. The ‘red wall’ of Labour seats in the north is no more for a reason, and the reason is that the move of voters to the right has been a long time coming. The referendum in 2016 helped to break the tradition of always voting Labour, with many ‘traditional’ working class people voting to leave, and then continuing that break with tradition to not vote for Labour in 2017 and 2019, because in their view Labour was just not listening to their views on immigration, first voting for UKip and then in 2019 voting for the Tories. I hasten to add (from someone who hates to be categorised in an age band) that, of course, the move away from traditional voting patterns is more complicated than this.
In fact, five years ago, I wrote that Labour was going to have a challenging task to move the electorate from the right and centre because voting was now along tribal lines rather than party loyalties. In 2016 Opinium identified eight political tribes: two of these tribes made up 50% of the electorate. These voters wanted to reduce immigration and leave the EU: one was the Common Sense tribe (26%) who were older Conservatives in the south, and one was Our Britain (24%) who were older working-class UKip voters (and all probably now Tory voters) in the Midlands and northern England.
A little closer to the centre were the Free Liberals (7%) and New Britain (6%) who were pro-business and therefore more likely to be pro-immigration and Remainers, however, they were predominantly Conservative voters. On the left were the Democratic Socialists (8%) who believed in the Single Market and saw the positive side of immigration, and the Progressives (11%) who are mainly professionals living around the UK who also believed in immigration and the Single Market. Another tribe was the Community tribe (5%) of mainly working-class voters based in the Midlands and northern England who want a socialist redistribution of income but were strongly against immigration. And then there was the Swing Voter tribe (7%) who could vote either way.
It makes sense that there is a multiplicity of ideas and thoughts about how life should be lived. It makes sense that there are many of the UK electorate who were, and still are, suspicious and wary of immigration (I have written about this before – see some of my past posts in 2016 &17). It makes sense that Brexit changed our society and unlocked the tradition that Labour is the party for the working-class vote.
This splintering of society into tribes, factions and bubbles of thoughts and ideas is heavily compounded by the growth of social media. We are so certain that our way of thinking is the right way and that everyone thinks the way we do. We communicate with friends and followers through our Twitter and Facebook bubbles, and reinforce our own views. For instance, anecdotally I know that many of my friends in Brighton used to say (it’s not a topic of conversation now) ‘I know no-one who voted to leave the EU, who are these people, why did they vote to leave’, they said. They were perplexed and horrified that the voting went the way it did. And then, on a cruise (yes, I know) we were perhaps the only ones on the ship who’d voted to remain, and on our table, they weren’t exactly horrified, but they too were perplexed, ‘why would you want to be in the EU, why?’ It puzzled them. The thing is even in our own small country, we do not hear each other, we do not listen to each other, we do not understand each other. And facts, that Johnson’s way of governing our nation has led to so many deaths mean nothing. Facts are not the same as beliefs. Our tongues and thoughts have been set free and yet we know so little, of each other, of how government works, of our different lives (and obviously I include myself in this).
Furthermore, the Conservative policy of austerity has ironically also moved votes from Labour to the right. I quote a recent article in the London Review of Books, “If voting one way gets you nothing the only way to exercise any degree of control is to vote the other way.”
See from this quote how life is in the North:
“Since the Tories came to power in 2010, central funding for local government in the North-East has been cut by 79 per cent (in the South-East it’s 69 per cent). Since 2010, total government spending in the North has decreased by £6.3 billion; it has increased in the South by £3.2 billion. According to the Centre for Cites, seven of the ten British cities hit hardest by austerity are in the North. The average weekly pay in the region has fallen by £21 since 2008. People living in the North die earlier than people in the South. Of the ten areas in England that currently have the highest Covid-19 rates, six are in the North.” Tom Crewe London Review of Books, 22 April 2021
If you have a really difficult life that never changes, in an area that is blighted by austerity, and everything seems to get worse and worse, and you have always voted Labour, wouldn’t you vote for another party that offered aspiration and some hope that a Conservative MP might get the ear of the Minister?
And then again, has any party got to grips with the devastation caused by the de-industrialisation of the north? With the ship-yards, mining, steel industry gone what jobs are there? And if Labour, the party you’ve always voted for, hasn’t solved the conundrum of the flight of industry and jobs to China and elsewhere, maybe a vote for another party might. This is not exactly being in control, but it is a choice, and it is the path that many have taken.
So, taking all the above into consideration, Johnson with his brimming optimism, confidence and a kind of rumpled charisma that makes him appear a loveable Clown King, gets the votes, and in the House of Commons comes up against Keir Starmer, the leader of the Labour party, who is the epitome of Captain Sensible. (Or does he seem these days more like Private Petulance?) The public looks on and sees that one party leader promises much, the other, well, what does Labour promise? I’m not sure. I don’t think Labour has got its policies out to the electorate. And that, in a nutshell is the problem.
Furthermore, the December 2019 election was the 4th election that the Tories have won in a row. We are a conservative nation voting consistently for the Conservatives, the most successful party in the world, apparently, with only 4 out of 19 of its leaders failing to win at least one election while only 4 of Labour’s 19 leaders have won an election. And currently it appears that this party can dissociate itself from its ghastly death-causing blunders at the beginning of the pandemic and sell itself as the answer to problems that it has created. This is borne out in the latest approval ratings with Labour dropping 6 points to 31% and the Conservatives up two points to 44%.
If this state of affairs carries on democracy is at stake. There were proposals in the Queens Speech for mandatory voter ID, purportedly to prevent voter fraud (very rare in the UK) which could lead to millions of legitimate voters being unable to vote. Think about the workers at the polls who identify you through your address, they would have to decide whether you are the person you say you are and turn legitimate people away if they haven’t got the right identity papers. This is a ruthless attempt to eliminate the marginalised, and those who do not have driving licences and passports, from voting. Yes, Johnson is a buffoon who knows little about making hard decisions but he knows exactly what to do to stay in power, and, of course, surround himself with his yes-men and women. What we are left with is a hollow Clown King leading a Cabinet that is a catastrophe of incompetents, a gaggle of no-goods, a cabinet of incapables.
The trouble is we can get so disillusioned at what is happening politically that we sink into spluttering disbelief and rage from our different sides and our separate bubbles. But actually, know this, at least half the nation is being gaslighted (?gaslit). You know what the term means don’t you? The term ‘gaslighting’ derives from the 1938 play, Gaslight, that was made into two films in the early 40s and is now used widely in clinical psychological literature. It is a form of psychological manipulation from a person or a group (in this instance Johnson and his cronies) that sows doubt in the mind of the recipients and a form of dependence and a need for validation from the perpetrator. And this happens not only to individuals but also occurs in the political sphere. Yes, we, the country as a whole, we are being gaslit, and have been for some time: there’s the lies surrounding Brexit and then there is now, with voters voting for the people who caused all those preventable deaths from Covid and so much damage through austerity.
Where do we go from here?
Ideally, we need to build up our infrastructure and the capacity of our nation to understand quite difficult political theories, and have new ways and means for doing politics that would include proportional representation and alliances between parties. The Greens and Lib Dems increased their vote in these local elections – but every vote needs to count.
If we stay the same, if nothing changes, and the Conservatives will do their utmost to prevent any proportional representation, then Labour will have to i) work out what it stands for and ii) bite the bullet and think about how it can attract the middle ground once more. Because does the Labour party want socialism and purity, or does it want power? And power is needed to rectify the wrongs that have been done by this government now and all that they plan for the future. Otherwise, we can wish for change and a permanent adjustment of our society, but we are whistling in the dark.
I hesitate to leave it all to the youth of this country to lead the revolution, but I do have hope and a belief in the young. Talking to my grandson, aged all of 15 years but wise for his age, it is encouraging to hear his ideas and his commitment to politics. He believes, for instance, that one should not vote tactically but vote for the Greens or Lib Dems even if they have no hope of getting first-past-the-post, in order to build these parties. Good for him. I have to say that when I lived at my last address, it felt good to vote Green for the only Green party MP in the House of Commons. Let’s hope I see more Green MPs in my lifetime.
Finally, be vigilant and alert, sift through the lies, and never, ever, forget the disastrous start to the pandemic that caused so many preventable deaths, all of which should weigh heavily on the conscience of the Conservative party.
Penny Kocher, 16 May 2021
Adam Drummond, It is immigration, above all else, that has united the right and divided the left. The Guardian, 11 September 2016
Penny Kocher, Corbyn and the political tribes of the not-particularly-United Kingdom. My Other Blog, 7 October 2016
Vicky Spratt, The Government is Gaslighting Us & It Will Kill People. Refinery29.com 20 May 2020
Salman Rushdie, The Old Man in the Piazza. The New Yorker, 23 November 2020
Luke McGee, Boris Johnson’s government is gaslighting Britain about the realities of Brexit. edition.cnn.com 20 February 2021
Samuel Earle, The Sordid Story of the Most Successful Political Party in the World. The Guardian, 23 February 2021
John Harris, The Conservatives are now the party of England. Changing that will be hard. The Guardian, 14 March 2021
Tom Crewe, Diary, London Review of Books, 22 April 2021
Richard Partington, Labour needs new message as Tories reshape economic policy around towns. The Guardian, 9 May 2021
Jess Garland, Mandatory voter ID would dangerously undermine UK democracy. Guardian, 11 May 2021