Crime & PunishmentLived Reality is Now Divorced From Electoral Politics
Sam Bright considers why, after years of stagnating wealth and declining health in Britain, the Conservative Party hasn’t seen its support slump sooner?
An embattled Prime Minister, mass inflation, industrial strife and a stagnating economy. Labour had been in power for the majority of the period since 1964, but economic turbulence and a crisis of leadership – Harold Wilson having been replaced by his Foreign Secretary James Callaghan – brought Labour’s dominance to a halt in 1979, losing comfortably to Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party.
The tales of the ‘Winter of Discontent’ have been well rehearsed in popular political history. An economic-industrial crisis precipitated Labour’s demise as an electoral force in the late 1970s and created the conditions for small-state Thatcherism to thrive.
However, this political ritual – whereby the mistreatment of individuals converts to the poor performance of governments at the polling booth – is disappearing in the modern era of British politics.
Indeed, the Conservative Party is set for a battering at the local elections on 5 May, but largely due to the personal offences of the Prime Minister – breaking lockdown and lying about it – rather than the record of his Government. In fact, Johnson has been using the performance of successive Conservative regimes as a crutch. Attempting to focus political attention away from his Downing Street debauchery, the Prime Minister has repeatedly expressed his desire to “get on with the job” and to “deliver on the wishes of the British people”.
This should strike fear into most people – especially those at the bottom of the income scale. The Conservative Party has presided over 12 years of declining health outcomes, economic stagnation and raging inequality – compounded by thousands of mass, avoidable fatalities during the COVID-19. Yet its public support, until the ‘Partygate’ saga, has remained buoyant – winning four elections since 2010 and rarely trailing Labour in the polls.
Health and Wealth
The UK has suffered one of the worst health and economic responses to COVID in the Western world – second only to the United States in the fall in overall life expectancy during the pandemic, among 20 comparable countries.
The pandemic “further exposed” health inequalities in Britain and “amplified them,” according to public health expert Sir Michael Marmot, who has tracked differences in health outcomes between the richest and poorest regions and individuals for more than a decade.
In 2020, for example, Sir Michael released a new report, evaluating how the past decade of Conservative rule had impacted health inequalities. According to Sir Michael, since 2010, Government spending on the key social determinants of health had fallen, and the funding was allocated in a less equitable way.
In particular, Sir Michael ascribed declining health outcomes to the Government’s ‘austerity’ programme – which sought to radically curb state spending. “Austerity will cast a long shadow over the lives of the children born and growing up under its effects,” Marmot wrote – adding that “Austerity has taken its toll… From rising child poverty and the closure of children’s centres to declines in education funding, an increase in precarious work and zero hours contracts, to a housing affordability crisis and a rise in homelessness, to people with insufficient money to lead a healthy life and resorting to food banks in large numbers, to ignored communities with poor conditions and little reason for hope.”
The Northern Health Science Alliance confirms these findings – highlighting that from 2012-14 to 2016-18, almost half of local authorities in the north experienced a fall in life expectancy among men, women or both. Byline Times has further calculated that healthy life expectancy fell in 80% of ‘Red Wall’ areas for either men or women from 2009-11 to 2017-19. So, while men in some parts of Blackpool are expected to live for 68.3 years, the life expectancy for men in the wealthiest areas of Kensington and Chelsea in London is 95.3 years.
“Put simply, if health has stopped improving it is a sign that society has stopped improving,” Marmot wrote.
Yet, in 2019, many deprived communities voted for the Conservative Party – some for the first time in decades – effectively rewarding the Government for shortening their lives.
Meanwhile, declining health has been accompanied by stagnating wealth. In the 15 years from 2007 to 2022, wages are expected to have risen by just 9% (the worst rate on record) – or basically nothing, if inflation is taken into account. During the previous 15 years, wages rose by 50%.
And while wages have risen notably during the early months of this year, high inflation is now consuming any growth in earnings enjoyed by workers.
This stagnation is a byproduct of sluggish increases in economic output and productivity in recent times. The UK logged “dreadful productivity performance” from 2008 to 2018, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Over that period, productivity per hour grew by just 0.3% a year against a historical trend of 2%.
A similar trend materialised during the Coronavirus pandemic. While Boris Johnson now claims that the UK has the fastest growth rate in the G7, he fails to note that we had the second weakest economic performance in the group during the pandemic. In effect, the UK economy is just making up lost ground.
The Importance of Accountability
Abuses of power – either through corruption, authoritarianism or mere incompetence – must be punished at the ballot box, or else abuse is embedded in the system. If political parties are able to avoid accountability for ruining lives, causing mass deprivation and poor health, there is nothing to prevent them from repeating their abuses.
This is especially the case in the UK, where democracy is underpinned by vague, unwritten conventions that concentrate power in Downing Street and demand a sense of duty and morality from those in charge – ideals that are not common among wrongdoers.
The separation between lived experience and political outcomes is also directly witnessed in the calibre and content of our current Government – or the lack of these qualities.
Parliament is coming to the end of its session with the Government failing to pass scores of new, planned legislation. More occupied with culture wars than the finer details of public policy, Johnson’s administration is effectively incapacitated – unable or unwilling to pass any legislation that doesn’t serve its divide-and-rule agenda.
Take ‘levelling up’ – the Government’s flagship domestic policy, that promises to rebalance the economy and erode entrenched inequalities between different parts of the country. The Government released its white paper on the subject in February – more than two years after the 2019 General Election – while only four of the 12 levelling up missions contained in the document will have a measurable impact on regional inequality, according to the Institute for Government.
While cabinets throughout history have been sculpted by political considerations – rewarding the loyal and satisfying internal party factions – Johnson’s Government does seem to be keenly suffering from a brain drain, with positions awarded to the dutiful over the deserving.
This is a symptom of our political climate, in which perception is far more important to election results than lived reality. As we have witnessed in recent years, politicians and their assets in the media are forced to concoct ever-more lurid ways to distract voters and distort the truth, in their efforts to cling on to power.
Public service has been supplanted by self-service, and the masses have toiled while the Tories continue to prosper.