Wednesday 18 January 2023

Divisions Among the Tory Base

As a broken clock tells the correct time twice a day, sometimes even the Daily Telegraph prints the truth. I'd extend that observation to 'interesting', because on Sunday it ran a piece fretting about divisions between two groups of traditional Tory voters: mortgage holders and homeowners. Economics editor Szu Ping Chan writes that the Tories are on the horns of a terrible dilemma. Reduce interest rates to keep down mortgages and homeowners lose out on savings' interest. Appease them by pushing them upwards, and payments to the bank go up with consequences for consumer spending. It's a zero sum game that cannot be triangulated. Votes are lost whatever the government does. And if anything, the problems will become more acute as the years wear on.

If we consider mortgage holders natural Tory supporters, that hasn't been true since at least the 2017 election. Considering the details from the last YouGov poll, we see the Tories trail badly among every age group who are working age. Even among the 50-64s, there's a 15-point deficit. Among the 25s-49s it's a 45-point difference. This is where most of the country's 7.4m mortgage holders are, and if Chan thinks this group can be won back by Jeremy Hunt instructing the Bank of England to cut interest rates before the next election, he's going to be disappointed.

The reasons why are obvious. As the article acknowledges, Liz Truss's blowing up of the economy terrified mortgage holders up and down the land. That, combined with stoking inflation has irreparably crashed the Tories' reputation for economic management, and no amount of briefcase burnishing or divide-and-rule can turn the situation around. People have memories. Additionally, for a good chunk of mortgage holders the Tory record in government have made life needlessly difficult, especially where a mortgage holder happens to be employed in the public sector. Millions of these people are never going to vote Tory, and it will be an antipathy they carry with them when they become owner occupiers and later retire. Assuming there will be such a thing as a retirement age when younger cohorts get there.

Having to choose between these and older voters shouldn't be too difficult for the Tories, because they've already lost this prop of mass conservatism. But what of the layers of owner occupiers? The advantage for the Tories resolves itself clearly among older people where concerns other than a percentage point on savings might be expected to predominate. Most notably, the NHS. It's in crisis don't you know, not that Rishi Sunak would ever admit it. And yet what do we see in the polls? Among the over 65s the Tories don't just retain a lead, but a 19-point lead. Admittedly, this is a sub-sample of a sample (397 out of 1,691) but is consistent with poll findings time after time. With the elderly uniquely exposed, why are they clinging on when everyone else has given the Tories the heave ho?

19 points might seem a lot, but it's nothing compared to what the Tories enjoyed one, two, three years ago. Some of the fall, at least according to YouGov, is thanks to the phantom threat of Reform UK. Others, it seems, either by direct experience of Tory chaos in public services or listening to their children, have fallen away. Enough, when combined with working age people, to administer an electoral massacre in the near future. Explaining why most of the elderly are proving to be outliers is partly thanks to an argument advanced by Chan. That, dependent on pension income, they are relatively shielded from the vicissitudes of the economy. Tory energy price inaction and dynamiting the British economy have seen prices rise, but - aided by the disproportionate influence of the right wing press - these are viewed fatalistically, as either matters out of the government's control, or because of the war in Ukraine. Truss might have been mistaken, but she was trying to do the right thing.

This shielding certainly helps, but what's missing is the appreciation of how 'pensioner' works as a structural location. As argued here previously as well as in the book, being retired and living off a fixed income, plus (where applicable) modest savings, shares and, in some cases, rents renders them analogous to the petit bourgeois in class terms. It individuates, privatises, and inculcates a certain anxiety. If something goes wrong, they can't seek extra hours, go out and work again, or easily get loans to cover emergency expenses. Being shielded against economic head winds does nothing to mollify an inchoate angst, and therefore just as the petit bourgeois have historically been the backbone of reactionary and populist movements, so the armies of the retired are the voting fodder for the Tories. Especially when led by someone like Boris Johnson, whose authoritarianism and nationalist/war-on-woke rhetoric offered an illusion of stability, a political salve to the itch of structural anxiety.

Yet the Tories and the NHS, why have the elderly refused to punish them politically for the public service they're most dependent on? It's because of decades of depoliticising the NHS as an issue. That it's always been in crisis since the Tories took over is true, but the pandemic and health service strikes has repoliticised it as far as the public imagination are concerned. But still, years of blaming hypochondriacs, health tourists, immigrants, self-inflicted illness, as well as immense amounts of waste arising from mismanagement have taken the sting out of how the Tories have handled the service. Their entirely conscious decision to not match funding to demand makes it appear as if the NHS is swamped and that there are too many demands on it. So right now, with A&E's bursting with Covid and flu, ambulances languishing around hospital entrances, it's just an unfortunate series of events. Okay, so my hip op or appointment with the specialist is delayed, but at best it's bad luck and at worst those grasping nurses are to blame. Unless the Tory press round on Sunak for what his mob are doing, it's unlikely his party's core support are going to see things any different.

What this means when it comes to the Tory base is one has pretty much gone, and the other has shrunk a bit but what remains shows no sign of abandoning a party that is helping many of them into an early grave. The Tories can't bring them back together, that ship has sailed. Instead we see our Prime Minister following through with a core vote strategy, presumably hoping enough of the blasted ship will weather the coming storm so it can set sail to new horizons of electoral victories in relatively short order. Given the long-term decline of the Tory base, it doesn't seem like a realistic hope. But in the mean time, having decided to carry on as they are, a lot more pain, damage, and unnecessary suffering is in our future, including where not a few elderly Tory voters are concerned.

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