Dominic Cummings must be rubbing his hands with glee. As more and more questions are raised about the what some are calling the ‘lethal amaterurism’ that has characterised the Government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis, the country spent most of June distracted by furious arguments about race and statues.
This has moved the debate on from Boris Johnson’s chief advisor’s unique approach to optical health. More importantly, a debate about values rather than health outcomes suits the Government down to the ground.
The referendum of 2016 polarized the country along values lines (between social liberals and social conservatives) rather than along the left-right cleavage that traditionally structured political competition.
Source: British Election Study
Nor was this a one-off phenomenon. The values division laid bare by the referendum went on to shape the nature of subsequent electoral competition. Think back to last year’s election.
The fact that the Conservatives won seats like Wakefield, Bishop Auckland and Workington, or that they won by 21% among working class voters is testimony to the realignment that had taken place in our politics.
So too is the fact that in seats where over 60% backed leave, the Tories increased their support by an average of 6%, whereas in those seats where more than 60% voted Remain, the party’s vote actually fell by three points.
The argument over statues that has been such a central part of the Black Lives Matter protests in this country has mobilized that same division. And it is terrain on which the Conservatives are relatively well equipped to fight.
Recent work carried out by the UK in a Changing Europe compares the attitudes of MPs, party members and voters, by asking each group a series of questions about fundamental ideological attitudes. The findings are revealing.
When it comes to social values, the Conservative clan looks relatively united. Even more importantly, on values they are far closer to those crucial voters who switched from Labour in 2017 to the Conservatives in 2019 than Keir Starmer’s party.
But when it comes to the politics of left versus right – questions like whether ‘there is one rule for the rich and one for the poor’, and the idea that ‘ordinary working people do not get their fair share of the nation’s wealth’ – the picture could hardly be more different.
Conservative MPs are to the right of both their own party members and Conservative voters, and significantly to the right of those 2019 Labour-to-Conservative switchers. Labour, on the other hand, is not just far less internally divided but considerably closer to those lost voters.
Looking forward, then, the Conservatives have an interest in maintaining a focus on values. Think of it this way. On the (feigned) threat to Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square, the Conservative Party spoke with one voice and rallied behind Boris Johnson. When it comes to the economic response to Covid-19, the party’s backbenches are increasingly restless.
The easing of lockdown will focus attention firmly on economic recovery. How these issues are framed then takes on crucial importance. We face another decade in which political life will be shaped by the impact of an economic crisis.
The Conservative narrative may well seek to major not on the details of the economic response – on how great the role of the state should be, or how we pay for ballooning deficits – but on arguably more ‘ephemeral’ concerns.
Conservative commentators are already queuing up to point out that it is surely no longer a priority to publish gender pay gaps, or to ‘suffer a little for the sake of the planet.’ Others argue that fads like the war on plastic have been made redundant by the virus.
It seems Number 10 is, in the short term, planning a number of ways of triggering values divisions. The Sunday Times reported that the Government is planning to scrap plans to allow people to change their legal gender.
Other reports suggest that some in Downing Street are encouraging the Prime Minister to launch a ‘war on woke’. The hope is clearly to profit from profound values divisions within Labour’s electoral coalition and detatch voters who might, if it really were all about the economy, stupid, support the centre-left rather than the centre-right.
For Labour, then, the key will be to find a way to nullify this strategy. Paul Mason has rightly argued that the party must focus on coming up with a more convincing narrative about reshaping the role of the state in the economy, as a means of uniting a coalition that has fractured over the last decade over values questions.
The Party now has a leader that the public, including Leave voters, find broadly convincing – and one who is going to be less easy to label as an unpatriotic ultra-liberal.
A narrative about economic fairness unites Labour and has the potential to tap into the ideological attitudes of the median voter.
The government’s current plans to emerge from lockdown will create millions of economic losers, and the Conservatives look set to incur significant governing costs.
A laser like-focus on the economy and on the steps needed both to recover from the post-lockdown slowdown in such a way as to tackle the numerous inequalities that the pandemic has highlighted could command broad support, not least among those voters that fled the party last year.
As the recent Labour Together review of the 2019 election concluded, Labour could win by building support for a ‘big change economic agenda’ that neutralises cultural and social tensions.
Whatever happens, the relative impact of the two cleavages – left vs right and social liberal vs social conservative will be crucial. The relative success of each side in imposing its own agenda on the political debate will help determine who ultimately triumphs.
By Anand Menon, director of the UK in a Changing Europe. Read Mind the values gap report here.