Boris’s message is more popular than you think. The left must be ready for it

In assuming the public simply likes Boris because they find him ‘funny’, critics misunderstand his appeal.

In assuming the public simply likes Boris because they find him ‘funny’, critics misunderstand his appeal

Boris Johnson has admitted what most of us already suspected: he is looking around for a suitable seat in order to enter Parliament after next year’s General Election.

Speaking earlier today, Johnson said he would “in all probability” try to become an MP at the next election:

“I can’t endlessly go on dodging these questions.”

“So let me put it this way. I haven’t got any particular seat lined up but I do think in all probability I will try to find somewhere to stand in 2015.”

No doubt this will delight many Tory activists. Boris is a firm favourite of the Conservative Party grassroots; but he also has a ‘star quality’ that reaches well beyond Westminster: a poll last year by Lord Ashcroft found that Johnson was the most likeable politician in the country.

Liked’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘taken seriously’, however: those polled also considered David Cameron a more capable Prime Minister than the Mayor.

Johnson is also rather untested when it comes to facing down those within his own party. Tory activists may swoon over him now, but will they be so keen if the Mayor starts pushing for an amnesty for illegal immigrants and extolling the virtues of immigration from the House of Commons? I doubt it somehow.

There is of course the possibility that Boris will change his  tune once he enters the Commons. Don’t bet against it, either. It’s easy for the Mayor to pose as the open-minded liberal when his voters are open-minded Londoners, but with an eye on the Tory leadership (why else would he choose to enter the Commons now?) there will be a great deal of pressure on him to assuage the fears of those Tories who are tempted by UKIP.

Paradoxically, though, he will be more dangerous for Labour if Boris doesn’t go down this road, despite the recent illusionary surge of Farage and his party.

Indeed, it’s a mistake to view Boris as a no-content Conservative. He believes in capitalism red in tooth and claw, but he also shares the liberalism of the young when it comes to social issues. He is pro-immigration, ambivalent about gay marriage and called for a ‘rethink’ on drug policy long before it was fashionable to do so.

Johnson ‘gets’ young people in a way few politicians do. This goes some way to explaining his popularity among the young – no mean feat at a time when many young people have never even switched on to politics let alone switched off. As the Economist put it last year:

“The chaotic, colourful mayor of London, a rare politician who transcends his Tory identity by melding social and economic liberalism, appears to have Britain’s libertarian youth in the bag.”

Putting this down to Boris’s anti-politics ‘charisma’ is convenient, but it side-steps the fact that there is a growing audience for the Mayor’s liberal message.

Like Boris, young people predominantly favour a small state in both social and economic affairs. Despite continued strong support for the National Health Service, the 2012 British Social Attitudes survey showed a hardening of attitudes toward many traditional left-wing concerns. In 1991 over half (58 per cent) of Britons agreed that the government should spend more on benefits even if it resulted in higher taxes. Last year that figure was just 28 per cent.

More than half also believed people would ‘stand on their own two feet’ if benefits were less generous, while only 20 per cent disagreed. Going back to 1993 the responses were almost exactly the opposite.

On social issues the liberal trend was also clear. Again to quote the Economist:

“Polls show that the young are more relaxed than others about drugs, sex, alcohol, euthanasia and non-traditional family structures. They dislike immigration, but not as strongly as do their elders. And they are becoming ever more liberal. The BSA has tracked attitudes for three decades. It shows that the young are now far more tolerant of homosexuality, for example, than were previous generations at the same age.”

As I’ve written before, I don’t think this dooms the left, because this is the same economic liberalism that is failing those who appear to have embraced it. In Britain in 2013 young people are more likely to be unemployed, more likely to have accrued large debts and have less chance than previous generations of owning a home.

But in assuming the public simply likes Boris because they find him ‘funny’, critics misunderstand his appeal, and will likely be found wanting when the time comes to counter his alluring brand of liberalism with an alternative from the left. When it comes to the next generation of voters, Boris is streets ahead.

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3 Responses to “Boris’s message is more popular than you think. The left must be ready for it”

  1. Leon Wolfeson

    So he appeals to some of the right. That Labour is fighting for right-wing votes, and is bleeding even centralist voters to “nobody to vote for” is why you’re struggling in the polls.

    He’s also not an economic liberal, he’s a capitalist.

    That you are defending Labour’s policy of sharp benefit cuts and and slashing basic welfare spending shows your party-line take here, rather than show an ounce of principle and risk getting voter support, you’ll shadow-box with the Tories and bleed support, based on a survey where you are picking and choosing two dates, which is pretty much an abuse of the statistics in the first place!

    Younger people are increasingly not voting because nobody speaks for them. Labour is speaking for the same people as the Tories. That’s the correct use of statistics – tracking trends, on clear single issues and not “issues” with multiple complex underlying factors which should be broken down sharply.

    Again, Boris appeals to young, right wing voters.
    You’re only looking at them, not most young British people.

    This is why Labour is working hard to lose the election.

  2. David Lindsay

    Not only has Boris Johnson expressed the universal recognition that the Conservatives are going to be looking for a new Leader after having lost next year’s General Election, but he has also demonstrated that the position of Mayor of London is a non-job, theoretically capable of being done for a year by the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.

    Why, then, is attention lavished on him, as it also was on his predecessor, while most MPs, and everyone with real political responsibilities in local government, are ignored completely? What on earth makes him think that he is qualified to lead the Conservative Party? Or, indeed, that he might be allowed to do so?

    By the time of the next General Election, Johnson will have been out of Parliament for as long as he was ever in. After that Election, more or less any seat still held by the Conservative Party will by definition be a safe seat, often occupied by an MP of very long standing. (It is telling in the extreme that, for all his loudly alleged popularity, there is no suggestion of Johnson’s contesting anything other than a safe Conservative seat.)

    Will MPs who had toiled for decades, in good times and in bad, be supposed to waft into the Leadership a man who had only just re-entered Parliament, and that on the specific understanding in his own mind that he would instantly be made Leader?

    Johnson, like Michael Gove, is given no scrutiny whatever, in both cases because they are the media’s own. But Gove is a spectacularly unsuccessful politician, while Johnson is not really a politician at all.

    In 2010, Labour decided that it, and not the media, was going to chose its Leader. That party has been ahead in the polls for almost the entire period since, and it remains so. 2015 might very well be the year when the Conservatives come to the same decision.

    In any case, Boris Johnson is unfit for public office. He has admitted that he always knew the case for the Iraq War was a load of rubbish, but that he voted for it anyway.

    No doubt this admission is true of many then-MPs, some of whom are still there. They, too, were and are unfit for office.

    The Conservative rebellion was proportionately as well as absolutely far smaller than the Labour one. But the Conservative Party were the Official Opposition, making its failure to oppose an even greater dereliction of duty. The same is true of the Labour Party, as such, over Libya.

    Has this country ever gone to war without the support of the Official Opposition? I cannot think of a case. The Conservatives could have kept us out of Iraq, as Labour could have kept us out of Libya.

    That said, Labour MPs, as individuals, who voted for war while knowing that it was all lies, as most of the general public had no difficulty in recognising, were and are no better than any other MPs who did so.

    It is one thing to have been hoodwinked, although MPs ought not be. But this was, and is, something else.

  3. James

    I don’t blame Scotland for wanting to get away from it. I feel like a foreigner in my own country. Let the libertarian yuppies have their way and humanity will sink as low as it has gone since records were first taken.

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