Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 18 June 2024

Why is this election a disaster for the Conservatives?


The title of this post might seem like a daft question, because it has so many plausible answers. As a result, endless articles have been written listing some of these, explaining how Conservative doom was all but inevitable. But, at least from those I have read, one factor is often missing or is underplayed. That factor is bad luck.

I know this isn’t what people want to hear. Anger at this government is off the charts, and as a result it is much more satisfying to place the blame for their current polling position in their own hands. Furthermore, there is little doubt that the governments over the last fourteen years have been off the charts in terms of incompetence and harm inflicted, and my last post detailed just one part of that. They certainly deserve to be where they are because of their own actions.

Unfortunately, none of this ensures defeat at the ballot box. Take 2015 for example. Austerity was a disaster in terms of public service provision, macroeconomic performance and living standards, yet the Conservatives won that election. They had the good luck that real wages started increasing a year before the election, so they could push the ‘hard work paying off’ line. More importantly, the media completely bought the necessity of austerity, so voters were badly informed about how stupid and damaging it was.

In 2019, when Johnson won a large majority in parliament, few people predicted it would fall apart so quickly and end so badly, even if we thought he deserved such a fall. Indeed as many people wrote in 2019 about how the Conservatives had put together a powerful electoral coalition as are writing about the inevitability of defeat today, and to be plausible the latter needs to account for the former. 

That includes myself. In March 2021 I wrote a post entitled “As things stand, the chances of defeating Johnson at the next election are minuscule”. To be fair to my former self, I did also write “as a former Conservative PM is said to have said, events, dear boy, events”. Those events are what this post is about.

It is certainly true that the longer a party stays in power the more voters look for change, but this forgets how much at first Johnson successfully portrayed his regime as something very different from the Conservative administrations that had gone before. Brexit wasn’t the only sense in which this was true. Johnson made a point of saying that austerity had come to an end, and he did put more money than was previously planned into the NHS, education and hiring more police. He needed to spend more to keep his new coalition together, because although the red wall voters who voted Conservative were socially conservative and wanted Brexit done, many also wanted to see ‘levelling up’ and better public services. How much he believed or indeed understood that strategy, and how much came from those initially advising him, is an interesting point that I will come back to later.

It is also tempting to say that the Conservatives today are suffering from the project that brought Johnson to power: Brexit. However the economic costs of Brexit have turned out to be the same order of magnitude as economists predicted they would be before the referendum vote, but few went on to suggest that the government that enacted Brext would be automatically doomed to defeat within five years. The reason is simple. The costs of Brexit are slow to emerge. If economic growth had otherwise been relatively good, these costs could easily have been explained away by a government with most of the press on its side. If they could do this with austerity they could do it with Brexit.

Johnson’s project came apart because of the pandemic. The pandemic itself didn’t lose him many votes, even though it should have. I have written many posts about why his decisions during the pandemic were terrible and directly led to tens of thousands of deaths, but his polling position in mid-2021 was pretty strong. Once again, incompetence in government does not necessarily lead to electoral loss, particularly when there is little criticism in the media.

The pandemic was bad luck for Johnson for three reasons. The first and most obvious was it exposed the government’s arrogance in believing rules did not apply to them. Holding illegal parties in No.10 is the obvious example, but the corruption over PPE contracts is another. I suggested here that this problem is endemic to a populist plutocratic right wing party, but it was not a problem that would necessarily become evident to voters so quickly without the particular circumstances of the pandemic.

The second reason the pandemic was bad luck was financial. If the pandemic hadn’t happened, and growth had instead continued at its earlier level, it is possible that Johnson could have put enough money towards levelling up and public services to keep his red wall voters happy, without the need to raise taxes in a way that upset his MPs and more traditional base. That might have required breaking fiscal rules and borrowing more, but this wouldn’t have been the first Conservative government to do so and yet continue to successfully claim that they were the party of fiscal responsibility. After the pandemic this was much more difficult.

The third reason the pandemic was bad luck was because of immigration. The pandemic put a steady increase in labour force participation into reverse, leading to labour shortages as the economy recovered and therefore record immigration. This was bad luck in electoral terms because it provided ammunition to Reform and Farage, who could with some justification claim that Brexit had promised less rather than more immigration. However some of this bad luck was self-inflicted, because Johnson and Sunak failed to provide the NHS with sufficient resources to clear the backlog of cases created by the pandemic.

If the pandemic was the government’s first piece of bad luck, the cost of living crisis was the second. [1] As we saw after the Global Financial Crisis, governments lose support among voters after economic crises even if those crises are global in origin. The 2019-24 period is unique in recent history in seeing an actual decline in living standards. Only a small part of that fall can be blamed on government decisions. The cost of living crisis meant the economy became voters main concern, which gave issues like asylum and culture wars more generally less traction. [2]

My argument is not that the Conservatives current dire electoral position is purely down to bad luck. It is slightly more subtle than that. What the bad luck of the pandemic and cost of living crisis have done is reveal the true nature of this administration, which without that bad luck might have remained hidden to many voters. So just as the pandemic revealed Johnson’s true character via partygate and PPE corruption, so the cost of living crisis highlighted the costs of Brexit and austerity, which under more favourable circumstances might have gone unnoticed by many.

As I stressed at the beginning, none of this bad luck is meant to detract from the fact that this 14 year Conservative government deserves to be where it currently is in the opinion polls. However I think it does help explain why the strategy of 2019 which seemed so successful in electoral terms so quickly turned into a disaster. Why is this important? It suggests the strategy of combining socially conservative policies with moving to the left on economic policy remains viable and capable of winning elections in its own right . The post-2019 analysis that suggested the Conservatives had created a powerful coalition of voters was not wrong, although any implication that this strategy was bound to triumph at the next election obviously was.

The problem the Conservative party (many MPs, its members, donors and press barons) has always had is that they have never really accepted the economic side of that 2019 strategy. [3] Once Johnson’s position became weak, he and his then Chancellor was forced to pander to the desire for tax cuts, and with Truss and Sunak the party reverted to a very right wing economic agenda. As a result the Conservative party itself abandoned the strategy that had been so successful in attracting red wall voters, and with a Labour opposition determined to win these voters back and with voters focused on economic issues its fate was sealed.

As I have suggested before, there is little chance that the Conservative party in opposition will revive the 2019 strategy any time soon. Other things being equal, that is good news for Labour. But it is not hard to see how a Labour government will eventually fall to a Conservative party that is well away from the centre in both economic and social terms. Part of the reason will be that a Labour government will be seen to be too illiberal for its natural supporters but too liberal to more socially conservative voters. Another factor will be a (probable) failure to alter the structural factors that work against liberal parties in the UK, including FPTP and the right wing press. But at some point a key factor may also be just bad luck.

[1] Part but by no means all of the cost of living crisis was a direct result of the pandemic.

[2] The Liability Driven Investment strategy of pension funds that was key to the third and final stage of the Truss fiscal event disaster could be classed as bad luck, but I think that would be stretching things. After partygate and with the cost of living crisis, the party faithful decided to elect a Prime Minister who had no interest in retaining Johnson’s electoral coalition, but instead reverted to promoting tax cuts rather than public services. Even after Truss fell, Sunak felt he had to do the same. The electoral gains Johnson had made were thrown away.

[3] This is why many in the party seem to believe that as long as their policy stance is illiberal and authoritarian enough, that will be all that is needed to secure their 2019 coalition. They fail to see the importance of moving left on aspects of economic policy because they don’t want to see it. In addition by becoming more illiberal and authoritarian they are unable to attack insurgents from further right (i.e. Farage), and instead legitimise that threat as a plausible place for social conservatives unhappy with the government to place their votes.

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