The 2019 general election spawned a huge literature drawing attention to the disconnect between the Labour party and some of its traditional voters, particularly over social values. Recent research from UK in a Changing Europe which surveyed MPs, party members and voters, duly confirms the fact that Labour MPs and members tend to be significantly more socially liberal than Labour voters.
But the research also reveals less well-discussed disconnects between Tory voters and Tory MPs. Most noticeably, there is a substantial gap between the economically right-wing views of Conservative MPs and the left-leaning views of most Tory voters, since many of the former Labour voters that the Tories picked up in the last general election hold fairly left-wing views. But Tory MPs are also more liberal than their voters. This is likely to be connected to education; around 80 per cent of Tory MPs are graduates whereas only 38 per cent of Conservative voters hold a degree, and there is an established correlation between higher levels of education and more liberal views.
Tory MPs therefore tend to occupy a libertarian political position. Libertarians put a high premium on freedom and tend to dislike rules, whether those are rules which interfere with the operation of the free market or rules which restrict personal freedom (such as being told to wear a mask). Yet they can be fairly liberal on issues such as immigration which tend to be deeply important to social conservatives; it is worth remembering that as mayor of London, Boris Johnson declared that he was the “only politician who would admit to being pro-immigration”.
The libertarian underpinnings of the Tory government have been evident in its handling of the Covid-19 crisis. Take the idea of ‘behavioural fatigue’ which it was feared would lead to people tiring of lockdown rules if they were implemented too early. Although behavioural scientists on the SAGE committee denied any knowledge of the concept, it clearly influenced the decision to delay imposing lockdown origins, presumably because it chimed suspiciously well with the libertarian instincts of the Tory leadership.
Dominic Cummings inadvertently turned himself into an exemplar of libertarian ‘behavioural fatigue’ by breaking lockdown rules to travel to Durham. What was so offensive about the Cummings affair was that for most people – both liberals and social conservatives – rules are important and failing to adhere to them violates an intrinsic sense of fairness.
Yet on the economic front, the government’s response to Covid-19 has been surprisingly comprehensive given the right-wing views of so many Tory MPs. But the push to re-open the economy despite the UK’s relatively high numbers of Covid-19 cases, seems to be prompted by an unwillingness to see the state foot the coronavirus bill for very much longer. The drive to get workers to return to offices is certainly not ‘guided by the science’, with the government’s chief scientific officer Patrick Vallance telling MPs that he could see ‘absolutely no reason’ to change official advice on working at home if possible.
The most worrying aspect of the government’s libertarianism is the belief that the looming economic crisis can be separated from the public health crisis. There seems to be genuine puzzlement that so many people are unwilling to go out to bars, restaurants and shops in the way that they did before the pandemic, and a lack of understanding that the government needs to bring case numbers down first to reassure them. And although for now there is a willingness among some voters to give the government the benefit of the doubt over its handling of coronavirus, either a second wave of infections or economic failure could rapidly change those perceptions.
Beyond Covid-19, the voters that the Tories are most reliant on do not actually have much in common with Tory MPs either economically or on values. This may well turn into a significant problem. Johnson made much of his ‘levelling up’ agenda in the general election, but it remains to be seen how committed he is, given the dire fiscal position he will inherit after the Covid-19 crisis combined with the uneasiness of most of his MPs around large-scale government expenditure. On immigration, which was one of the primary drivers behind recent Tory election victories and the vote to leave the European Union, the government’s latest proposal for a post-freedom of movement immigration policy is considerably more relaxed than previous iterations. Voters who expected a significant reduction in immigration may be disappointed.
Labour has an advantage that its MPs, members and voters are much more united than the Tories over economics. Focusing on the need for an interventionist government which does not seek to evade the rules it sets for ordinary citizens, whilst exploiting the disconnect between the right-wing ideology of Tory MPs and the left-leaning views of its voters, could be a winning formula.
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