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The decision to appoint Lee Anderson as Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party points to one of the (many, many) challenges facing the Party as it gears up for the next election.
In 2019, Boris Johnson managed to cobble together a broad but not especially coherent coalition of voters by combining the promise to get Brexit over and done with a vague vision of a pro-spending Conservativism and his remarkable ability to get people with very different politics to project whatever they wanted onto his blank and genially-benignant canvas.
Rishi Sunak, armed with the instincts of a Treasury hawk and a row over trade regulation in Northern Ireland, is not really equipped to repeat that feat. Yet holding on to the Red Wall will be essential if he is to be re-elected, especially given the dire demographic trends in the Blue Wall which the Government, by abandoning planning reform, seems determined to do nothing about.
Is it a good move? We’ll find out in 2024, one must suppose. There’s a world in which the new position reins in the Member for Ashfield a bit, and CCHQ is very good at putting him in front of the voters he speaks to. There’s also one where his pugilistic instincts remain cheerfully unchecked and the Prime Minister finds himself part-owner of all sorts of exciting positions.
But there is also a broader question raised by Anderson, and the media furore that follows him around. And that is: how much does the political class really want, as much of it professes to want, a Parliament which is more representative of the nation as a whole?
Many initiatives over the past couple of decades have had this as their justification. Just within our own party there are projects such as Women2Win and the controversial A List in 2010. These have had definite, tangible results in broadening the range of people now sitting on the Conservative benches on a range of metrics.
Labour, typically, have gone even further, to the point where under Robin Cook they bent the traditional operation out of Commons entirely out of shape in the name of making it family friendly.
This has had definite, tangible results too. The spectacle of MPs delivering truncated two-minute speeches on certain in-demand Bills, whilst others don’t get to speak at all, is not a good one, but it does illustrate the lengths the object of a more representative Parliament were thought to justify.
Anderson is not the sort of MPs the architects of those programmes had in mind, to put it mildly. But it is difficult to argue he is not speaking for an under-represented group.
Take the current controversy around his vocal support for the death penalty. Whatever you think of the position, it is wildly under-represented in public life. According to YouGov, some 40 per cent of the public are generally supportive; amongst Conservative voters, that figure rises to 58 per cent. When specific crimes are highlighted (multiple murder, child murder, terrorist murder) general support tops 50 per cent.
Yet judging by the media coverage, Anderson’s public support for it is sufficient to turn him into a bit of a circus act. Even Priti Patel, not known for her conciliatory approach to liberal norms on law and order, eventually chose to deny having ever been an “active supporter” of capital punishment.
Are there more MPs who privately support it in certain circumstances – and could perhaps make a more eloquent case for it? Sure. But they don’t. Anderson does.
The mode of delivery is its own point, too. Whilst he says plenty of controversial things, some of the points Anderson makes are definitely received as they are in part because of how he communicates them.
His argument about people struggling to budget, for example, echoes the work of the APPG for Financial Education for Young People, even if the latter certainly won’t welcome the connection; teaching people to cook healthy meals in schools would likewise probably have a decent constituency in respectable public health circles if advocated differently, by someone else.
None of which is to say that people shouldn’t object to what Anderson says. It’s politics, and it is both perfectly proper and not especially difficult to find things to dislike about his politics.
But in terms of trade-offs, if we moved away from polished, professional politicians offering the same careful, controlled answers to interviewers – which, again, irritates a lot of people – there would be a price to be paid in what we might call determinedly unprofessional communication.
And if we did create more pathways for non-professionals to enter politics, the result would be a decidedly less liberal Parliament than the ones we tend to get, because the British are not an especially liberal people.
To highlight once again my favourite-ever bit of polling, in 2011 YouGov tested public attitudes on how to respond to the riots and found more than two-thirds in favour of almost every measure they suggested: water cannon, mounted police, curfews, tear gas, tasers, plastic bullets, and deploying the Army.
The last, “firearms/live ammunition” (!), was backed by only 33 per cent of this nation’s doughty yeomanry. (Are they the same people who apparently want a 10pm curfew forever? Who knows!)
Ultimately, one suspects that most politicians, journalists, think-tankers and so on are much happier with the Ruling the Void patterns of modern democratic life than they might admit; there will therefore remain a sort of distribution gap in right-wing politics between those clustered at the edge of the Overton Window and those who don’t care about it.
As long as this holds, Anderson will continue to be a rare instantiation of a certain sort of Tory (and in truth, Labour) id – and our panel’s Backbencher of the Year.