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19 January 2022

Paul Mason

Why working-class Tories have turned on Boris Johnson

Johnson has exploded the notion that the elite will govern well in the interests of ordinary people.

It had to be a “pork pie plot” that did for Boris Johnson: it could never have been foie gras. As northern Tory MPs fume over the Prime Minister’s response to lockdown breaches in Downing Street, it’s suddenly become clear to the Conservative Party’s hierarchy what having a mass, working-class base feels like.

It used to be only Labour’s problem that, while activists in big cities worry about pronouns, voters in northern English towns worry about the cost of fish fingers. Now that’s the Conservatives’ problem too – albeit refracted through the No 10 boozing scandal.

Working-class conservatism is not new. It’s a phenomenon rooted in two aspects of British proletarian life that doctrinaire Marxists could never get their heads around: skill and imperialism.

Skill, and the hierarchical privilege in the workplace that comes with it, created a labour aristocracy from the mid-19th century onwards. They weren’t all Tories – indeed, they provided the backbone of syndicalism and communism. But many ideologically committed Tory workers were skilled men.

By the same token, and often at the other end of social hierarchy, lifetime soldiers, sailors, crooks and jailors – detached from the working-class community and immersed in the reality of imperial supremacy and deference – became the reliable transmitters of right-wing thought.

Though the economy that created these stereotypes has disappeared, it was still alive when the social attitudes of many voters over 50 were formed, and it survives in the world of bogus self-employment and precarious manual work. And some of the most enduring concerns among working-class Tories revolve around leadership, behaviour and trust.

In 1967, when the American sociologist Eric Nordlinger wrote his seminal study The Working-Class Tories, he began by quizzing voters about a single question that is highly relevant to now. Suppose, he asked, there are two men, equal in all other respects: one went to an excellent grammar school, the other to Eton. Which one would make the best prime minister?

Among working-class Tories, double the number preferred the Eton man to the grammar school man (women figured nowhere in the political sociology of 1967). In the Labour-voting control group, the proportions were reversed.

When asked to select a reason for preferring the Eton man, “better education” came a poor second to “upbringing” for Tory voters. Nordlinger’s interviews record pervasive deference, not just to the intellectual qualities of the Eton man but to his expected behaviour. One response, given Johnson’s polling slump, is worth quoting at length:

“[The Eton man] is trained to be a leader and if he has it in him he will make a good leader. It makes him an honest, hard working, deep thinking man… I think [such] men are better able to move in diplomatic circles and are not as worried by money and earning a living.” 

If even a fraction of such deference persists in the minds of voters today, you can see what’s driving the sudden polling switch from Conservative to Labour: because Johnson embodies none of these attributes. He is dishonest, lazy, an intellectual lightweight, a catastrophic diplomat and constantly worried about money he does not have.

And while it’s true that the Spectator, the Oxford Union and various off-Mayfair parlours are the intergenerational repositories of conservative tradition, it is also true that working-class Toryism passes its traditions verbally, from one generation to the next.

Nordlinger noted, way back in the 1960s, that the most profound value guiding working-class conservatism was deference. “The Tory tradition,” he wrote, “underlines hierarchy, leadership, independent governmental authority, and rule by an elite educated to rule.”

While Tufton Street conservatism in London draws on all kinds of intellectual fads – American libertarianism, free-market zealotry, ethnonationalism and management theory – the conservatism of English working-class people remains broadly guided by a specifically Tory ethos going back to Thomas Hobbes.

It believes humans are bad, destructive and chaotic without firm government. That society is organic and should not be tampered with. That there are no “natural rights” for a state to trample. And that only an authoritative, educated and trained elite can be trusted to govern. 

And that’s why Boris Johnson has crashed and burned. The deal at the heart of working-class conservatism is that, since only the elite can govern, it has to govern well, and honestly. In times of national crisis – and 153,000 deaths from a virus constitutes a national crisis – it has not only to lead, but to lead by example.

Its role models are those upper-class officers in First World War films, who went manfully over the top armed with a whistle and a revolver. Compared with them, it’s easy to conclude that Johnson is the kind of bloke who would have shot his own big toe off to get to the rear, and then claim he didn’t know it was against the regulations.

Here’s why the Red Wall’s crisis of belief in Johnson matters. In small, northern ex-industrial towns, the Labour vote has always been a tribal alliance of socialists, liberals and social conservatives. Indeed, those who grew up during the postwar boom understood implicitly what Harold Macmillan once said explicitly: that “Toryism has always been a form of paternal socialism”.

Labour’s social conservatives switched in significant numbers to Johnson in 2019 because he showed leadership over an issue they cared about – uncontrolled immigration from eastern Europe. But that doesn’t stop them wanting a modern version of a paternal socialism, where the people who make the rules actually understand them and obey them.

So Johnson is morally finished. As one pollster told me, the word most used about him in focus groups is “disgraceful” – and that’s before Sue Gray reports and heads start rolling in No 10

Of the likely replacements, only Rishi Sunak fits the stereotype of the born-to-rule, expensively educated, clever and competent person. But for these very reasons, the Tory selectorate will probably place him second to the tawdry lightweight Liz Truss, or – if we are really unlucky – the Brexit nationalist Penny Mordaunt.

And this is why Keir Starmer deserves at least some credit for the current poll surge.

There’s been a dirge on the anti-Starmer left (which loves dirges) that goes: this is a self-inflicted crisis and nothing to do with “Kieth”. If you understand what matters to small-C conservatives, this is clearly wrong.

Starmer has conducted himself throughout the pandemic with restraint, decency and prudence. He reshuffled his team, with tangibly positive results (albeit at the second time of asking); he endured the political hailstorm of the Batley and Spen by-election campaign. And while he issued a cringeworthy “belief” document on the eve of conference, and reneged on various pledges, that’s not what swing voters are focused on.

Compared with Johnson, Starmer looks honest, competent, diligent: not the kind of person who would stage a “Great Exhibition” in return for a roll of gold wallpaper. Though his past as director of public prosecutions disenchants some Labour tribalists, it is a badge of competence for voters who like the idea of locking up criminals.

Paradoxically, for all its desire to focus on substantive issues – the cost of living, Covid-19, post-Brexit stagnation, Northern Ireland, the looming Ukraine crisis – Labour has staged its turnaround on the single issue of competence and trust. 

If Johnson goes – as now looks inevitable – the hearts and minds of working-class conservatives will be in play, politically, as never before. There will be a short period in which Starmer faces not one Tory opponent but three or four. It’s in that period that the next election could be won or lost.

[See also: Labour must overturn the neoliberal revolution in taxation]

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