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How the Tories lost the Rod Stewart generation

The musician’s on-air rant has given voters permission to acknowledge all the ways the state is falling apart around them.

By Rachel Cunliffe

What does it mean for a Conservative government when even Rod Stewart opposes it? The 78-year-old musician voiced his discontent with Tory rule on 26 January when he phoned into a live discussion about the NHS held on Sky News and called for new leadership.

“I personally have been a Tory for a long time but I think this government should stand down now and give the Labour Party a go,” Stewart told the programme’s presenter Sarah-Jane Mee. “In all my years in this country I’ve never seen it so bad.” He continued with an exhortation to “change the bloody government”.

Images of the rock singer, with his distinctive spiky hair, made the front pages of multiple newspapers the next day. Keir Starmer could barely contain his glee. “I’ll go along for a singalong with Rod Stewart and thank him for his words,” he told Sky News, trying not to smile. “I think he actually reflected a mood across the country, which is that so much is broken and not working, and I think there’s a real frustration that things have been brought to this point by the government.” Such a high-profile endorsement was an unexpected boost for a Labour Party that remains 20 points ahead in the polls – and that was before Rishi Sunak sacked Nadhim Zahawi as the Conservative Party chairman during a recent Sunday broadcast round.

For a rock star, Stewart makes a fairly safe revolutionary. He was awarded a knighthood in 2016. His music – that blend of folk, rock and “jangle pop” that epitomises the Sixties and Seventies – is catchy and well-loved, but has never been particularly political. The scandals that have dogged his career are the generic celebrity kind: a string of blonde bombshell girlfriends, a lot of drugs. (The rumour that he once had to have his stomach pumped after ingesting semen is, Stewart has said, not true. The one about him taking cocaine through his anus apparently is.)

When Stewart made headlines in March last year, it was for having the audacity to fill in potholes on the road by his house in Harlow, which the council had neglected. Now that his frustration has broadened from the Conservative-led Essex County Council to the Conservative government in Westminster, it is the NHS – a cause as uncontroversially popular as the fixing of potholes – that has fired him up.

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Stewart is by no means unique in wielding his celebrity status for political aims. Carol Vorderman recently used a segment on ITV’s Good Morning Britain to demand to know whether Rishi Sunak benefited financially from the government’s investment in Moderna. Vorderman also reminded audiences of the scandal regarding the peer Michelle Mone, who took a leave of absence from the House of Lords in December, following claims that she profited from a firm she recommended for a PPE contract (allegations she denies).

Looking back to the Boris Johnson era, in 2020 the England footballer Marcus Rashford proved a more effective opposition than the Labour Party over free school meals, while the hip-hop artist Stormzy has a song containing the lyrics “fuck the government and fuck Boris”. (It’s difficult to find any celebrity condemnations of Liz Truss, but given she only lasted six weeks as prime minister, that’s hardly surprising.)

But it seems particularly significant that this ageing rocker called a live phone-in to vent his frustrations. Stewart is – as he admitted – a long-term Conservative. His last big foray into national politics was in December 2019 when he tweeted his congratulations to Johnson for winning the election. His tweet provoked public anger, particularly among fans of Celtic – the football team he has supported for 50 years – who, during a game, unfurled a banner that read: “Tories not welcome, fuck off Rod.” But even if this didn’t mark such an abrupt personal U-turn, there are reasons for the Conservatives to be far more worried about this intervention than one from Stormzy or Rashford.

Rod Stewart is a British institution, someone who has become a household name not just because of his musical achievements, but for the longevity of his career. His breakthrough album, Every Picture Tells a Story, which topped the UK charts, was released in 1971, when Edward Heath was prime minister. An 18-year-old who heard “Maggie May” when it was first released would have been 26 when Margaret Thatcher came to power – just the right age to have their politics shaped by her radical shake-up of the economy. If they were in a position to benefit from Thatcher’s policies (as millions were, even if whole communities despised the prime minister), that affinity for the Conservatives may well have only strengthened as they aged.

Many would have experienced Britain’s house price boom and will now be sitting on substantial assets. (In 1980 the average house cost just over four times the average annual wage; today, it is more than eight times.) They are also the generation most likely to have taken advantage of defined benefit pensions, of the shares sold as part of Thatcher’s privatisation spree, and of Tory tax cuts, particularly for unearned income.

[See also: Keir Starmer interview: “Am I aiming to be just a one-term prime minister? No, of course not”]

In short, they are the Conservatives’ core base. That 18-year-old Rod Stewart fan would be 70 today; in 2019 57 per cent of those aged 60-69 voted for Johnson, rising to 67 per cent for the over-70s. There is a reason Conservative governments of the past 13 years have been committed to serving this group – protecting them from economic headwinds by raising pensions and keeping house prices buoyant even as younger generations struggle under the weight of student debt, eye-watering rents and high taxes.

Yet even so, it’s not enough. This time last year, the polls showed 55 per cent of over-65s said they backed the Tories. Today, just 46 per cent do. Crucially, on one of the most pertinent issues to this demographic – the handling of the NHS – 73 per cent of people who voted for Johnson in 2019 think the Tories have failed.

Which brings us back to Stewart. It is worth listening to the clip in full – the noteworthy quote isn’t his entreaty to “change the bloody government”. It’s what comes before, when he talks about being late to a health scan at a private clinic and realising how few patients were being treated there. That fury is what prompted his generous offer to pay for 20 private scans: “It seems ridiculous that this particular scanning clinic was empty when there are people dying because they cannot get scanned.” The anxiety over the unprecedented NHS delays has consumed the whole country, but it will be particularly frightening to those pensioners – the people who came of age with “Sailing” and “Tonight’s the Night” and have voted Tory for decades – who see the health system crumbling just when they need it most.

Stewart’s impassioned rant isn’t going to convince those voters of anything they didn’t already feel; rather, it gives them permission to acknowledge all the problems they’ve been trying to ignore, all the ways the state is falling apart around them. They’re not alone in feeling scared and powerless and let down by the politicians they trusted. Rod Stewart is with them, with all the nostalgic power he wields. Even he thinks it’s time for a change of government. And if the children of the Thatcher Era are losing their faith, the Tories really have no hope at all.

[See also: Britain Predicts]

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This article appears in the 01 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Housing Con