For his critics, Boris Johnson offends the notion that the British are a sensible people so deeply we feel we no longer understand much of our country.
How, we wonder, can so many voters support an obvious phoney? How does a prime minister who makes it up as he goes along get away with it?
The fraudulent promises of rising living standards, the national self-harm of Brexit, the deliberate exacerbation of tensions in Ireland and the treatment of former friends in Europe as enemies have produced an anti-Johnsonian culture. Its brilliant satires and devastating newspaper columns are as ferocious and outraged as the anti-Thatcherism of the 1980s – and just as ineffective.
A report released today by Labour Renaissance throws a bucket of cold realism over our fevered rages. The new think tank wants to reconnect Labour with working-class voters who have left the party for the Conservatives. It hopes to make Labour understand why these vote gave up on a party they supported all their lives.
Renaissance’s recommendations to Keir Starmer are practical and intelligent. I don’t want to knock its work. But in a country that cannot face hard facts I fear there’s only so far practicality and intelligence can take you.
What struck me about the findings is the almost nihilistic suspicion voters have of politicians. ‘They promise you everything then turn up with a barrel of mud,’ said one Plymouth voter. Yes, indeed, a barrel of mud is exactly what the UK’s anti-Johnsonian counter-culture believes the prime minister has delivered. (And a few of us think it is a barrel of a more noxious substance.)
Johnson’s supporters don’t treat him as a joke, however. The anti-Johnsonian culture thinks they don’t mind being fooled by the PM because he lets them in on the gag. All politicians make promises they know they cannot keep, he implies, but at least I am honest about it. I am not lying to deceive you but to cheer you up and show I am on your side. Just as Putin won over Russians by drawing them into his corruption, so Johnson makes Conservatives complicit in his empty bragging.
We don’t think about positive reasons for believing in Johnson. Labour Renaissance does not duck them. This government delivered Brexit, protected jobs with the furlough, and rolled out the vaccine, it says. To its supporters, these are substantial achievements.
We reply, ‘but what about austerity and the NHS’? Renaissance warns Labour that, although these questions play well with its core support, the voters they need to talk to think austerity was necessary and the NHS is not in danger. On top of that, they expect the Covid debt to constrain the economy and public services in future. ‘We can’t do any more spending or borrow more money,’ as one said. Nor were working-class voters keen on higher taxes for higher earners. They saw them as punishment for hard work.
Or to put it another way, a segment of the working-class vote may view most politicians with suspicion but Labour politicians are trusted least of all. Stephen Kinnock, one of the MPs behind the think tank explains the mistrust of Labour by saying a party that has been out of power for 11 years has been unable to show working-class people what it can do for them. He then adds with considerable tact that Labour’s ‘core identity as the natural home for working people has not always been at the front of our communications’.
For most people I know, politics should not be this way. But here we are nonetheless. After the enormous effort Labour has made to reform itself, it still has a mountain of Himalayan magnitude to climb.
The researchers call for Labour to be a communitarian party: protectionist, tough on crime and public safety, and proud of the nation. It must ‘relentlessly promote its core identity as the party of working people – and of “Good jobs you can raise a family on.”’ Labour must show how every penny it invests will save money in frontline services, rather than committing itself to vast spending promises, and focus on attacking the Tory cronyism and waste that was so evident during the pandemic. It’s pushing at an open door. Rachel Reeves is already advocating a buy British policy. The menacing rise of China means that David Ricardo and comparative advantage can be damned. There is as coherent a case for not relying on Chinese manufactured goods as there is for not being dependent on Russian energy.
The report is wise about the culture wars, warning that they are as great a danger for the right as the left. When the Prime Minister and Home Secretary cannot condemn yobs who boo the England team for taking the knee, it is easy to see how the side that sounds humane and reasonable rather than the side that allows its own fanatics to drag it to an extreme will win.
And yet and yet. The culture wars are the result of a great shift in western politics. Liberal graduates now dominate left-of-centre parties across the rich world. I don’t know how far they would allow Labour to go down a communitarian road before they revolted. Maybe, like the centre-left of the 1990s, they will become so sick of losing elections they tell their leaders to do whatever is necessary to win, as the anti-Thatcher generation told Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. But I cannot guarantee it.
A more fundamental problem is that Renaissance is selling the same myth as Boris Johnson. How does it propose to create the ‘good jobs you can raise a family on’? We have wrenched ourselves out of a vast and prosperous free trade area and our leaders can’t even talk about the consequences let alone try to ameliorate them. The state turns on business, and then expects business to raise investment and productivity levels. The idea that restricting migration will increase living standards is about to be exposed.
All of this pushes all of us in the anti-Johnsonian counter-culture back to asking the same, old question: how can this country be so stupid?