Johnsonism, Vote Leave and the Construction of an Enemy

EDITION: Bad New Times.

Johnsonism has created its own national populist electoral coalition. It now aims to maintain this through the “levelling up” agenda.

This piece is part of our What Is ‘Johnsonism’? series.

So far 2020 is not going as planned for Boris Johnson. On New Year’s Eve, he released a message to the nation declaring that, at midnight, the ‘starting guns’ would be fired for ‘what promises to be a fantastic year and a remarkable decade for our United Kingdom.’ Fast forward six months and the country has been locked down for weeks and an economic recession is looming. Johnson himself had a brush with mortality, spending some days in an intensive care unit sick with Coronavirus.

This year, the Conservative Party was supposed to make due on its Brexit promise and move Britain on to ‘the people’s priorities’: targeted investment in valuable public services like the NHS and education and the ‘levelling up’ of those ‘left behind’ regions that granted Johnson an 80-strong majority at the snap general election.

For now, Coronavirus has torn up the Tory’s economic plans. As Chancellor Rishi Sunak put 8.4 million people on a state-funded furlough scheme, political commentators have diagnosed the end of ‘left and right’ politics: now that the government is even paying people’s salaries, European-style social market economics will be upon us.

As Mayor of London, Johnson was read as socially liberal. Because of his role in the EU referendum campaign, he was considered to be aligned with the libertarian wing of the Conservatives. The politics of libertarian Tory Leavers are grounded in British exceptionalism. This translates into support for free trade and an emphasis on Britain’s sovereignty. They oppose a ‘nanny state’ that tells people what to do - whether that is about ‘political correctness’ or policies that interfere with an individual’s life choices.

The various faces of Johnson as a politician and the government’s hands-on response to the pandemic adds further confusion to already murky waters: what actually is it that Boris Johnson’s politics stand for?

Our best bet to understand Johnson’s political coalition is by examining the politics of VoteLeave. The Conserative’s electoral success in 2019 was grounded in a national populist strategy that mirrored VoteLeave’s EU referendum campaign.

National populists captivate an emotional response - usually the feeling of a threat to material and cultural dominance - and manufacture it into electoral success. This phenomenon can be observed across Europe where national populism has made significant advances. An example is Germany, where the anti-establishment, anti-Islam street movement PEGIDA has paved the way for politicians of the Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) into positions of parliamentary power. Unlike more established parties of the right/centre-right, the AfD is grounded not just in institutions of the party but linked to a popular movement. It constructed a people united behind a shared interest - defence from a perceived threat - against the adversary. The political party that can show it will target this adversary is the one that will receive the electoral support from this voting base. PEGIDA represents this core base of support, which has been amplified into the mainstream by the AfD. Whilst those marching with PEGIDA might be unlikely to disagree with the AfD, some AfD voters will still not go quite as far as PEGIDA. But the close links between the ‘mainstream’ party and the hard political core as expressed in the street movement has achieved an extension of the coalition to a new group of people. PEGIDA cohered and hardened the base via a street movement from which it was possible to expand through the right-wing populist party to become a significant political force.

The VoteLeave campaign was the British expression of this trend. It’s important to note that the formation of the Leave coalition was not simply organic. VoteLeave’s strategists manufactured a constituency for the referendum based on a system of social listening and targeting that was at that point unseen in political campaigning. Since then VoteLeave’s alumni have gone on to reshape political communications strategy - not just in Number 10 but in commercial lobbying and corporate PR.

This coalition that VoteLeave constructed is the force that catapulted the Conservatives to power in December. They tapped into a feeling of loss and decline, deflected from their own political role in administering the closure of industries and lack of investment in the area by focusing on the European Union, remainers and ‘metropolitan elites’ as adversaries.

But the creation and focus on this adversary was only the first step. Shoring up anger was needed to get the coalition off the ground. The key question now is how to maintain it. The Conservatives know they have to offer something to these new voters. This is where the ‘levelling up’ agenda comes in.

The Conservative manifesto pledged to invest in infrastructure, R&D and skills training to ‘level up the whole economy and unleash Britain’s potential’. Targeted investment in areas of strategic importance will harden the Conservative vote because communities will now see a change - they’ve been rewarded by returning a different Member of Parliament even though the colour of the government that has mistreated them up until now has remained the same.

It is not enough to pledge more spending. To keep the coalition in check, the people are not to forget who the common enemy is. This is why it is a key part of Conservative politics to construct deserving and undeserving groups of people. The ‘undeserving’, particularly migrants and people of colour, must prove first that they should reap the benefits of this ‘unleashed Britain’.

For Labour this throws up an array of problems. Firstly, much of our analysis treats the 2017 and 2019 Conservative campaign as essentially identical, and the main difference was that Labour shifted its Brexit policy. But Theresa May’s strategy, despite also having a clear commitment to Brexit, was unable to reach the coalition that enabled Johnson now. Her “protestant work ethic” approach to politics was designed to speak to a “middle” that is simply without a base in society.

Mayism might also serve as a cautious warning for those currently at the top of the Labour Party who are seeking to construct a coalition of the middle to beat Johnson.

This shows that, although Brexit was the “hook” that brought things in motion to construct this coalition, a simple Leave/Remain binary is not sufficient to explain why Labour was more successful in 2017 than 2019. It makes clear that Brexit is a proxy question and simply appealing to either side of the debate does not touch the roots of the problem.

Mayism might also serve as a cautious warning for those currently at the top of the Labour Party who are seeking to construct a coalition of the middle to beat Johnson. Keir Starmer’s approach of building unity in the country by ‘common sense’ and ‘grown up’ politics is unlikely to appeal to enough sections of the current majority coalition to shift the balances of power. And we have to remember - it is not just about constructing a majority coalition, it is also about its maintenance. Whether managerial consensus-politics can keep in place the elements of Corbynism that have propped up Labour in the last four years is questionable.

But what can be done? Left-wing activists in Labour will be aware that it is much harder for now to influence the direction of the party. Simply passing policy motions in constituency parties - or even at Labour Party conferences - is not the same as influencing these high-level strategic decisions.

Perhaps the first step lies outside of the Party and outside of the current majority coalition. Who is it that is not currently captured by Johnsonism and why? What kinds of struggles are being fought because of their exclusion?

There are certain sections of the outside that Johnson and the Conservatives cannot reach - and they have no intention to do so. Rather than incorporating them into their coalition, they will seek to undermine their ability to organise. They might give them the occasional cash handout but will not implement any policies that will change the structures of the economy to lift them to a materially different place. In the best case scenario for Conservatives, this will lead to a depoliticisation and apathy of key sections of the working class.

Although working in these spaces might not create a majority electoral coalition in time for the next general election, it can instead consolidate a base. This base is necessary as a first step before we can even reach out to expand our coalition.

The current majority Conservative coalition is built on a notion of sovereignty and independence: not only does Britain as a sovereign nation not have any obligations to other countries, but we as independent individuals in society, as home-owners and ‘deserving’ citizens, do not owe anything to our fellow citizens.

There is no point for the left to emulate this sentiment to penetrate their coalition.The politics of Johnsonism are fundamentally opposed to how socialists relate to the world, as our politics should be grounded in collective responsibility and care. Whilst Labour under Starmer will seek to appeal to the whole country, the left should focus on organising our base. This base consists of the people outside the Johnson coalition that cannot be reached. From this base we can work to build up our credibility and speak to communities again that are currently beyond Labour’s limits.


Sabrina Huck (@Sabrina_Huck)

Sabrina is a freelance writer based in London. Her interests include migration and borders, socialist approaches to the state and the legacy of Germany’s 1968.