After Boris Johnson takes his first big dive in the polls, James Foley argues that the Tories are still benefitting from the weakness of Labour and SNP opposition.
This has been the worst week in some time for Britain’s hegemonic Conservatives, a fact owing less to COP26 than to Boris Johnson’s mishandling of sleaze. His bungling of “lobby-gate” – more correctly, the latest of countless lobby-gates – contrived, within a week, to turn a three-point poll lead into a six-point deficit. For a certain type of optimist, it raises the recently unthinkable prospect of a Labour government under the neo-Blairite stewardship of Keir Starmer.
News cycle-driven shifts in polling are rarely reliable guides to underlying movements in public consciousness. And one or two polls in Labour’s favour risk obscuring the more fundamental facts: that six-point advantage poll was the first concrete, outside-margin-of-error Labour lead since January; hundreds of polls since then have shown a Conservative lead.
But there are reasons to think this scandal hurts the Conservatives, as it bears on the underlying sociological contradictions of the Johnson government. It is no coincidence that this, of all issues, brought Labour its first real good electoral news since the vaccine rollout. Lobbying exposes the easily forgotten roots of Conservative cadres in the British capitalist class, hence why so many parliamentarians view constituency work as a side-hustle from lobbying for business interests.
Labour’s “People’s Vote” debacle allowed the Conservatives to strike a temporary bargain with “Red Wall” voters in Northern England. But what Johnson won was a borrowed vote, a temporary alliance he struck with the peripheral English working-class against the trendy left and professional-managerial nostalgists for the ‘90s consensus.
For a while, Conservatives managed this contradiction judiciously: Sunak, having emerged from the world of hedge funds, often outflanked Labour from the left. YouGov polling thus shows that 64% think of Conservatives as a high-tax party, i.e. the “economic left”, as opposed to 56% who say this of Starmer’s neo-Blairite Labour. But football cliché has it that form is temporary, class is permanent, and the Tories could not hide the constituency of their cadres forever.
Still, this crisis did not need to hurt so badly. Popular resentments against politicians can be fickle. There are resentments against part-time politicians who swan in to represent constituents when they fancy it. There are also resentments against career politicians, of the type who predominate in “left” parties like Labour, the Greens and the SNP: figures who have limited real world experience, whose vocation is politics and who spent their youth orbiting parliament, sniffing for jobs.
The opposition leader has limited credibility on either front. Revelations from journalist Alex Nunns show that Starmer himself accepted a second job as a corporate lobbyist, only to be slapped down by his then leader Jeremy Corbyn. And let us not forget Tony Blair himself, the intellectual forefather of the People’s Vote and Starmerism, who used diplomatic connections built as UK Prime Minister to earn millions as a consultant to brutal dictatorships. Labour is not only guilty of the same offences: as the traditional party of working class outsiders, they could stand charged of hypocrisy, an accusation which often hurts more than the sin itself.
That the Conservatives are suffering so badly thus raises the question of Johnson’s leadership. Rumours of a Sunak successorship are symptomatic. The Chancellor represents the aspiration of post-neoliberal centre-right leaders for a new coalition of stability: business-friendly but benevolent, multicultural but not woke. Johnson served his purpose in 2019; many consider him an amateurish embarrassment, a clown prancing around an electoral minefield. With the European Research Group (ERG) retreating to the fringes, Johnson has vanishing utility for any serious faction.
But this crisis transcends Johnson. For all the ongoing economic breakdown of capitalism – rising living standards are a thing of the past – there are signs that the populist moment is receding, and a sense of political “normality” returning.
Have the post-austerity disruptions to “normal” British politics been absorbed into the status quo? The Corbynist experiment has ultimately weakened the autonomy of the Labour Left: as the Bennite remnants die out, what remains is a post-traditional husk orbiting NGO policy communities. Scottish Nationalists, meanwhile, are content to govern the devolved parliament for the long haul and would doubtless accept a “progressive alliance” with Starmer, with a referendum or without, as their credibility increasingly rests, like Scottish Labour before them, on not being the Tories. Even the Brexiteer hardliners, who scored the most concrete breakthrough, have been pensioned off as an ideological force. Few are carping against further encroachments into British sovereignty.
For Labourists, the dream is a re-enactment of 1997. The electoral pendulum will swing, and, with the Tories mired in sleaze, Labour will grab the mantle of “change”. Even the slogans are re-enactments: “tough on crime…” With centrists back in the saddle, leftists can afford a retreat to pre-2008 comfort zones: branch activism, planetary consciousness raising and low-cost moral issues (Blair happily conceded foxhunting to the Labour Left). Normality restored, albeit in a world without conscionable economic growth.
But such lofty dreams are further off than optimists might imagine. The Conservatives are paying the price for conceitedness. But they are, above all, a party of ruthless opportunists. Labour still has few answers for a UK state divided into four unresolved national questions. Starmer’s insipid message is ill-suited to the naked competitive pressures of an election, when a looming “coalition of chaos” with the SNP would bring those national questions back to the fore. British political consciousness remains too broken, for now, to allow for anything but Conservative rule.
Still, there are questions over how long this deadlock can last. SNP hegemony and Conservative hegemony are both products of a vacuum of legitimacy caused by the breakdown of Labourism, the glue that makes small-c conservative Britishness possible. But the SNP are no nearer to a concrete breakdown, and have allowed support for independence to slip. Maybe not this electoral cycle, or the next, but eventually this nationalist era, a product of post-Labour entropy, will yield to the same void.