Sunday 8 November 2020

Boris Johnson's Hungry Kids Climbdown

What was the point of all that? Amid the hullaballoo and excitement of American politics, the government quietly announced it was climbing down over scool dinners. You'll remember it. Not three weeks ago the Torie absolutely refused to find extra cash to help hungry kids out during the half-term holidays. For some, there was "enough" support already via emergency funding made available to local authorities. Others made a real meal out of the empty plates of others and indulged every scrounger myth their limited, spite-filled imaginations could conjure up. You might recall the government whipped against a holiday hunger vote in the Commons, amid claims issuing food vouchers was the same thing as nationalising children.

The first matter of interest is how the scheme, backed by Marcus Rashford and Labour, was projected to cost just £22m. 18 days on, the government has decided it can afford £400m to see the poorest through Christmas. Indeed, it goes beyond what was being asked for by offering more help with utility bills and assisting families through Easter, the summer holidays, and next Christmas. Another £16m is to be given to foodbanks too. It's not very often the government completely capitulates to progressive demands, but this is something else. The support for charities is a bit on the lean side, but making sure holiday hunger is banished for the next year shows the Tories' belated recognition of how damaging the episode was for them and a determination to avoid the same in the future. No accident then Labour has started posting polling leads in the aftermath of the school meals farrago.

For the Tories, however, the damage is done. After grandstanding and being seen to vote for the status quo in the Commons, unveiling the U-turn is not going to be a comfortable experience for a lot of Conservative members. Take my own occasional MP, for example. Plenty of anger there in the replies, none of which are put up jobs from local Labour Party types. If you're naive or a fool, you might say the government were going to do this all along. And then I might ask why MPs were allowed to go out in public and megaphone their belief figures on Dishy Rishi's spreadsheets were more important than filling empty bellies.

Still, a belated Halloween nightmare is now upon Boris Johnson. As this blog has argued many times, an abiding characteristic of the last 40 years is the authoritarian state. It complements, permits, fosters, and protects the marketisation and commodification of everything, from the contracting out of the local council's catering department to the privatisation of DNA strands. Politically, the programme of selling off state assets or shaking them up with the introduction of marketised relationships between public institutions (see the NHS, for example) has the consequence of centralising authority in the executive. I.e. the government. After Thatcher, despite the piety shown to neoliberal nostrums, the "small state" is the heavily centralised state. This is simply accepted as the case and no subsequent Prime Minister has set the flow of governmental power into reverse. In practice, this has made government big, overly dependent on governance mechanisms, unwieldy, and structurally incompetent.

These developments have made them quite vulnerable, politically speaking. Without alternative bases of authority, and despite their best efforts at depoliticising government failure, bad things ultimately stick. The problem with centralised systems is it's easy to apportion blame, and so the received wisdom of neoliberal statecraft is to head this off by providing resolute leadership. Authority is accepted the more it is seen to be accepted, of leaders saying something and sticking with it. Ironically, for a time, despite his affected buffoonary Boris Johnson fit this template to a tee. He demonstrated his seriousness about getting Brexit done by offending liberal sensibilities, splitting his own party, promising to trash the law, and making theatre about refusing to extend Article 50. Johnson built authority among Brexit-minded voters because he demonstrated a seriousness of purpose, and readers will also recall when Covid hit and the first national lockdown came in Johnson was posting huge, war time-style polling leads. Since, this has whittled away. The Tories' own venal and pitiful performance has a lot to answer for, but also corrosive has been the half-dozen high-profile U-turns executed by Johnson. Most recently, the refusal to countenance another lockdown and, hey presto, another lockdown. There is this on school dinners and hungry children. And another is coming, thanks to the outcome of the US presidential election. If an authoritarian governmenr can't show authority, trouble is around the corner.

Bit by bit, Johnson's authority is bleeding away. There won't be a set piece event that will finish him off, like Thatcher's poll tax, Major's ERM fiasco, Brown's election-that-never-was, Dave's referendum, and May's double disaster of the election and the Article 50 extension. His trajectory is similar to Blair's, with a nibble taken here and a bite taken there. Not helped by his own cackhanded approach to party management, and unconcern for MPs who've expended goodwill and capital defending his lines, such as on food vouchers, only to have their stand trumped by a panicky and generous cave-in. Once Brexit is finally done, Johnson's going to have a very difficult time recouping what is lost - if the point of no return hasn't already been crossed. Just perhaps historians will come to the view it was hungry kids that marked the beginning of Johnson's end.

Image Credit


shtove said...

Unfortunate typo: structurally incomptent

Blissex said...

«If an authoritarian government can't show authority, trouble is around the corner. [...] Bit by bit, Johnson's authority is bleeding away. There won't be a set piece event that will finish him off [...] Once Brexit is finally done, Johnson's going to have a very difficult time recouping what is lost - if the point of no return hasn't already been crossed.»

And here the usual fantasy, common to "leftoids" and "centrists" that "politics" matters, in the sense that voters, especially tory voters, look at how efficient and competent the government is at defining policies and managing their implementation.

The reality is that voters may grumble about a lot of things, but if their "vote moving issue" (as per my previous Grover Norquist quotes) is satisfied, they keep voting for the government.

Consider Tony Blair: he was electorally toxic, and did much worse things than Boris Johnson has done so far (from massive amounts of PFI to a war of aggression based on fraud to introducing vicious authoritarian laws), yet his voters did not switch to the opposition until New Labour screwed up their "vote moving issue", which was and still is "southern property profits".

In 2019 there were though two "vote moving issues" for Conservative voters: a majority still had "southern property profits", and a minority had "get Brexit done". On *both* they have been satisfied. They may think "if only the government were not so farcical and sleazy", but they also think "but hey, I still got my £30,000-£40,000 of work-free, tax-free profits this year", or "but hey, I still got Brexit done this year", so they are satisfied.

The polls show that the Conservative intentions to vote are down, but those are more *theoretical* ones, of the sort that get realized in elections that don't matter; in elections that matter, most voters ignore their previous voting intentions and vote on satisfaction with their "vote moving issues", and they are not competence at defining policies and managing their implementation.

The point about southern property profits is that they are so huge (not just a few hundreds or a few thousand quid per year, which would still be pretty useful), and so absolutely necessary to southern property owning voters to maintain and improve their lifestyles, that a government that delivers them may do pretty horrible things (like a war of aggression based on fraud) and still not be voted down by them. "Blow you! I am alright Jack" is a powerful vote motivator.

The question is whether the vote moving issues will still be satisfied in 2024.

Blissex said...

«pretty horrible things (like a war of aggression based on fraud)»

Oops, a correction: usually I don't forget to say that there were at least *two* of them, the first being the attack and invasion of Jugoslavia to dismember it. An amusing detail:
“Tonibler is a male given name in Kosovo, given in honour of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair following his role in the 1999 NATO air campaign against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia during the Kosovo War”