The lobbying scandal has been kryptonite for the Tories’ populist electoral support – but it may not last
Ifan Morgan Jones
It’s just one poll, and it may be an outlier and could quickly snap back to normalcy as soon as the news cycle moves on to something else.
And even if it confirms a long term trend it’s nothing to get excited about for Labour – opposition parties are routinely ahead at the midpoint between elections but that’s no guarantee they will win the next one.
Before the 2015 election Labour had been ahead for almost five years and the Conservatives still won a majority.
However, I don’t think that yesterday’s Savanta ComRes poll for the Daily Mail showing Labour six points ahead, at 40% to the Conservatives’ 34% is a complete aberration. It’s been coming.
Boris Johnson’s success as Prime Minister has been down to him portraying himself as the anti-establishment candidate.
It’s worth remembering that the Brexit vote was not just a kick against the EU but also against Westminster and the UK Government of the time.
It sounds ridiculous that someone from Boris Johnson’s background could be anti-establishment, but his entire shtick from his bumbling persona to his unkempt appearance has been to present himself as such.
The reason why the lobbying scandal has been kryptonite to the Conservatives’ poll ratings is that it has undermined that entire perception.
The attempt to protect Owen Paterson against sanction for lobbying, and all the scandals that have been revealed since then, have reminded voters that Boris Johnson is very much a part of what they don’t like about Westminster.
To use Donald Trump’s colourful populist language, Westminster is the swamp and Boris Johnson has been found to be the Swamp King, up to his neck in the same stench of sleaze that voters hate.
The inevitable result is that his personal anti-establishment credentials, and therefore his poll ratings, and the Tories’, have taken a hit.
However, I’m not entirely convinced that the current polling trend towards Labour and against the Conservatives will stick.
The long term problem for Labour is that they do not look well-placed to take advantage of this trend.
Sir Keir Starmer, MP for Holborn and St Pancras (literally a bike ride from Westminster), is never going to convince as an anti-establishment candidate for Prime Minister. He is the establishment through and through.
That doesn’t of course mean that Jeremy Corbyn, MP for Isington North next door, wasn’t just as out of touch with Labour-Tory swing voters.
A better leader to represent the anti-Westminster voice would be someone like former frontbencher Andy Burnham who has reinvented himself as an ‘outsider’ as Mayor of Manchester.
UK Labour may not be particularly interested in how Welsh Labour secured their victory against the run of play at May’s Senedd election but Andy Burnham seems a little more switched on.
He has understood that people around the UK don’t like Westminster. They feel neglected and let down and think that too much financial, political and cultural power is held within the Westminster village while others parts of the country whither away.
This is the sentiment that Wales’ First Minister Mark Drakeford tapped into in May. The Covid pandemic allowed him to define himself against a Westminster establishment a lot of people thought was doing a worse job.
Plaid Cymru’s anti-Westminster message failed to appeal because Mark Drakeford had quite simply and cannily nabbed it and used it himself.
Despite Abolish the Assembly and the Welsh Conservatives’ best efforts, the idea that the Welsh Government were the establishment the populists should rise up against just didn’t stick – because the alternative was returning power to Westminster, which is seen as even worse.
The current lobbying scandal gives the UK Labour leadership an opportunity to portray themselves as the party of giving Westminster a bloody nose.
Long term, the inevitable failure of the Conservatives ‘levelling up’ efforts allows them to do the same.
But whether the current leadership of UK Labour will realise this, understand why the polls have turned and what they need to do to take advantage of that is, however, another matter.
Whether the narrative sticks will also likely depend on matters outside their control – i.e. whether the Tory sleaze stories will keep coming or whether they manage to right the ship.
It would also depend on the Tory-supporting tabloids continuing to report on stories damaging to the Conservatives if Labour do take a consistent lead.
My hunch is that the Conservatives will spot the problem and nip it in the bud. In particular, they will attempt to swing the narrative back towards plucky Britain vs the ‘unelected bureaucrats’ at the EU.
Boris Johnson may be incompetent as a manager but he understands how to push voters’ anti-establishment buttons like no other politician of his generation. Meanwhile, nothing about Keir Starmer’s leadership has suggested that he has that intrinsic, base instinct.
It’s why I don’t buy predictions of Boris Johnson’s demise, and why I think that when and if Labour are ever in power again, it will be in a very different political age – or with a new leader.
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