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Boris Johnson's parties may sink the Conservatives but we can’t let it tank our trust in democracy

We need to channel public anger towards the government into something better, writes Ellie Mae O'Hagan, director of think tank CLASS.

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Boris Johnson at a 2017 speech. Image: Chatham House/Flickr

There’s no doubt that something remarkable has happened to Boris Johnson and the Conservatives in the past few months.

Just two years ago Johnson led a landslide election victory, apparently reforming the Conservative base around an entirely new set of voters in Labour’s traditional heartlands. If the polls are to be believed, the allegations of parties along Whitehall have ensured that is now completely wiped out

Until recently, most political commentators would acknowledge that Johnson was slap dash, reckless and economical with the truth. But they would also marvel at his ability to evade any accountability for his actions. Now, it’s like all the accountability built up throughout his political career has crashed down on him at once.

When Jeremy Corbyn was leader of the Labour Party, an atmosphere developed in the country where it became embarrassing to admit you supported the Labour leader. In focus groups it was common for participants to say they could never support Corbyn. When they were asked why, they often couldn’t really give an answer. It wasn’t anything particular he had done that seemed to bother people; it was that, by saying you didn’t like him, you were signalling your own good judgement.

Something similar is happening to Johnson. No one wants to say anything good about him. The pollster James Johnson asked a focus group of Conservative voters who would be likely to vote for Johnson again. No one put their hand up.

Unsurprisingly, a big chunk of progressives – from those in the liberal centre all the way to socialists – are pleased to see Johnson’s downfall. Perhaps by the time you read this he will have been ousted as prime minister, and they will be celebrating. But I would argue that there are warning signs that progressives should be taking note of. 

One important sign is that the massive drop in the Conservatives’ vote share hasn’t translated into support for other, more progressive parties. Instead, that indomitably popular candidate who goes by the name of “I’d rather stay at home than vote” seems to be gaining ground by the day. Keir Starmer has got nothing on that guy.

Our research at CLASS has found that people are deeply cynical about politics and the possibility of progressive change. Most people don’t look at the government behaving badly and think “it’s time for a new, better form of politics.” They’re more likely to resent their own lack of agency and see greed and bad deeds at the top as the natural order of things. One of the most common phrases you’ll hear in qualitative research is “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” 

If you want a more colourful version,  pollster Frank Luntz recently found that two in three people say their attitudes towards politicians is “fuck them all”. Perhaps that explains why, despite Boris Johnson’s sudden unpopularity, Keir Starmer’s net approval rating remains unchanged at -23%.

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A useful comparison here is the expenses scandal in 2009. Like the revelations of recent months, that too seemed to reveal an unaccountable elite that was making a mockery of the rules for personal gain. And that too led to intense public outrage and a wave of resignations. But it did not translate into a fairer, more transparent politics. 

Instead – as the pollster Deborah Mattison put it when I saw her speak in parliament in 2011 – the level of anger against Westminster was so strong that it had the potential to reshape politics completely. And perhaps the most seismic expression of this public anger was the shock vote to leave the EU in 2016, something most progressives opposed, but the greatest beneficiaries of which were the current government. 

When people are angry with unaccountable power,  all too often it means that the winners are those who can ventriloquise public anger most effectively, even if they are dangerous charlatans who plan to make everything worse. 

We need to channel public anger towards the government into something better, and we do that by presenting our vision of a better world and our plan of how to get there – whether through political parties or coming together in our trade unions and communities. 

If we’re not able to imagine a different, fairer world and persuade people that it is possible, then public anger will usually find a home in the most opportunistic political movements that can take advantage of it. And the cycle of political scandals, outrage and volatility will just continue.

Ellie Mae O’Hagan is director of The Centre for Labour and Social Studies (CLASS).

@elliemaeohagan

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