This meeting took place via Zoom the day after the results were known of the Hartlepool by-election and of some of the local election results as well. The Hartlepool election was a significant win for the Conservatives in what had been long regarded as a safe Labour seat. They won by a significant margin and with a big swing to the party. (We were reminded in the Sunday papers that the captain of HMS Amethyst in the ‘Yangtze Incident’ was the first to be MP when the constituency was formed).
This prompted the winning topic of discussion: Why do people vote Tory? The government – and Boris Johnson personally – had for weeks been mired in a variety of sleaze allegations the most recent of which was the huge cost of redecorating the No 10 flat using money allegedly from a Conservative party donor. This had resulted in a number of enquiries being set up to establish the facts. Previously, there had been the Greensill lobbying saga involving the previous prime minister, David Cameron, and before that a series of allegations of contracts being given to friends, acquaintances or supporters of the party and its ministers, the so-called ‘chumocracy’. Despite this, and other shortcomings including one of the worst per capita Covid-19 death rates, the Conservatives romped home to a comfortable victory and made significant gains in the English local elections as well.
One participant kicked off with a series of ideas about why this was the case. They thought:
- politics was no longer about facts but a matter of style. There was a link to the game of ‘cavalier and roundheads‘
- politics was more about show business and by inference, Boris Johnson was brilliant at this
- there was a high degree of ignorance about how politics worked
- the first past the post voting system made the system as a whole dysfunctional
- politics was now the province of ‘mountebanks and snake oil salesmen‘
To which someone added:
- The election had to be seen in context, similar to war time, people opt for safety first. Later, it was suggested it was a kind of ‘Falkland’s moment’ not forgetting that until the time of that war, Mrs Thatcher was really struggling to make headway.
- there was a high degree of pragmatism as the government had aimed to give them what they wanted eg the freeport with its promise of lots of jobs for the area. An interview in the town revealed that the vaccine success was a major factor (and could have mentioned that in a Brexit supporting town, the poor performance in the EU with their vaccination programme was also a factor).
It was quickly pointed out that the Conservatives were not being that true to their core beliefs at present. They were a party of small government, low public spending, low regulation and the pre-eminence of the free market. The pandemic meant they were spending heavily, printing money and engaged in considerable government activity, the very opposite of the austerity years.
It was also pointed out that voting Conservative was a ‘respectable’ thing to do. Some thought voting Conservative was risk averse and that once the pandemic had faded from view, the problems of Brexit will resurface. On the other hand, statements by various ministers that the sleaze stories had not made an impact (not ‘cut through’) with the public were described as shameful. Sleaze did not seem to matter because the public were not interested. Whatever happened to integrity?
It was not long before Labour’s performance was brought up and Sir Keir Starmer was thought disappointing although it was pointed out he had been unable to campaign in person because of the pandemic. He is seen as dull. What Labour stood for was also very unclear.
Back to Hartlepool and it was noted that the area had changed significantly over the years. It used to be a solid working class town whereas now it was trendy and gentrified with a social mix that had changed considerably. Had Labour recognised this change both here and elsewhere? The election had focused on the pandemic and Boris Johnson is seen as successful in having led a successful vaccination programme many believed. The easing of lockdown also brought a feelgood factor into play.
The Conservatives will be emboldened by these election results. A worry was that a range of restrictive legislation will be quickly enacted. Restrictions on Judicial Review, the risk of being arrested and acquiring a criminal record for campaigning, and immunity for some wrongdoings by military personnel, together with harsher immigration and refugee regimes were all likely to proceed at pace. A voter ID system will further entrench their hold. It was pointed out that many of these policies are very popular among the public. Reductions in overseas aid for example received overwhelming support.
Part of our discussion focused on the notion of a change from a ‘we society’ to a ‘me society’. People were less and less interested in collective solutions and more on what they could do for themselves. To an extent this struck at the heart of the Labour party project.
Another factor was short-termism. Attention spans were short and by the time facts became known, we had all moved on. It makes changing policy week by week that much easier. Whatever happened to the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ for example which was a key policy less than a decade ago? An enquiry into what happened with Covid will not report until people have long forgotten what took place. An article by Vince Cable on this topic was recommended. It was a piece about short-termism and its relation to actions on climate change.
Bearing in mind the strange times and the dominance of Covid and the vaccination programme, will a return to ‘normal’ politics see people changing their minds? Maybe, but it was noted that people are very slow to change their minds. Will concerns about Brexit begin to take over from the pandemic in a few months?
I am not sure we ended up getting to the bottom of these events. The Conservatives have done well to sell themselves with snappy slogans such as ‘levelling up,’ ‘take back control’ and ‘Get Brexit done’ which have served them well. Thinking of a Labour or LibDem equivalent is hard. The successful vaccination programme and easing of lockdown has also served them well. Hartlepool was a keen Brexit town and Boris Johnson has delivered on that front. Labour’s choice of a pro-Remain candidate seemed ill-judged. But whether this will last is another matter. The Jersey fishing dispute – which happened a day or two before the election – is perhaps a taste of what is to come.