A working-class revolt looms as anger replaces fear amid surging living costs. The final two candidates must address this anger directly in the latter stages of the leadership campaign or they’ll alienate their ultimate electorate before even walking into Downing Street. The Conservatives cannot afford to lose working-class support at the next election.
In Bury last week, working-class 2019 Conservative voters we spoke to were furious about the impact of inflation on their lives – and the perceived lack of help they were getting. Listening back to the tapes, their anger was palpable. Some openly discussed the possibility of the mass non-payment of bills. We’re starting to pick this anger up elsewhere.
“I’m going to tell you something, honestly. Now a lot of people I’ve been speaking to have literally point blank told me that if they start to increase anymore, they will point blank refuse to pay the bills. [And in my friend’s words]: ‘And everybody should. What will they do then?’”
“What the hell? These politicians need to listen to us. If we’ve got no enjoyment, you’re just working to pay bills, and even when you’re working you’re not able to pay them. Somebody needs to do something.”
“It has to be the majority of people that [refuse to pay bills]. Because at the end of the day, all these rich consortiums are the ones that are funding politicians – they’re making sure that the people in power are keeping them going. So, if you stop paying your bills, they’re just going to cut your gas supply off, or they’re just going to cut your electricity off, because they’re really harsh like that, and who’s going to make them turn it back on? So, it has to be a mass thing. The whole population needs to join in and do it.”
A few months ago, most working-class voters put rising living costs in context: they believed national Covid debt and the Russian invasion of Ukraine had raised inflation in Britain and across the world. As such, while extremely concerned, they didn’t blame the Government.
Things are now changing and the Tories ought to be very worried. Many people face the prospect of their money literally running out; their comments about boycotts were a natural response; what else can they do? This desperation and anger is something Martin Lewis has been warning about for a while. It is now beginning to happen.
Leadership candidates have a specific job: persuade scores of fellow MPs and tens of thousands of ideological activists they’re the right choice to lead their Party. As such, they’re focused on issues that move Conservatives but not necessarily anyone else. You obviously can’t blame the candidates for this; they must do what they need to win.
However, candidates shouldn’t be under any illusions: many working-class voters think the focus on issues like gender and free speech is plain weird in the context of massively rising living costs. It looks like politicians are worrying about utter trivia while they’re drowning in debt. This is having an impact on the reputation of Government.
As such, when the final two candidates emerge, they have serious repair work to do. Even as they talk about issues close to activists’ hearts (crime, immigration and asylum, and a “positive” Brexit vision), they must ensure they’re speaking to the public about cost-of-living issues. This is becoming overwhelmingly dominant as an issue for the public, but has been a relative side show in the campaign. If they don’t pivot to living costs, they’re going to look outrageously – perhaps unforgivably – out of touch.
Where is this anger heading? Martin Lewis has warned of the prospect of disorder. We’re a long way from this. Before we even get to the point of any organised campaign to boycott bill or tax payments, we’ll hear demands from the public for a further massive cost-of-living subsidy. This would be hard to resist.
After all, the public has seen – during lockdown – what massive Government intervention looks like. And only recently the Government provided a further subsidy to the poorest families to ease the cost-of-living crisis. In short, the public know the Government has the ability and willingness to inject cash when they need to.
The Government will only go so far and some may feel that they still don’t have the cash they need to survive. It would therefore make sense for utility companies, local councils, mortgage providers and banks to consider what the equivalent of a mass boycott – or indeed a mass default – looks like.
More broadly, we should remember that the 2000s were marked by a surge in small parties and campaigns who catered for public disillusionment on everything from wrong-headed devolution to Brexit to migration. It’s perfectly possible to imagine a surge in another party or movement which cornered the market in cost-of-living issues; such a party or movement might be very mainstream, but might not be.
Over the course of the next few weeks, I’ll be tracking working-class sentiment as costs rise, looking at the possible ramifications for the Conservative Party and suggesting possible policy solutions. First things first though: candidates serious about the next election need to introduce themselves to their ultimate electorate by showing that they care what working-class voters are going through. This must start this week.