Some roles in Westminster are not dished out by party leaders or formal elections, but pass by natural succession from generation to generation. One such position is the firebrand Tory “rent-a-quote” — the Honourable Member most relied upon to voice those views that sit just beyond the pale of parliamentary language. They bellow things that would drop jaws at a nice dinner party but barely raise an eyebrow in a small-town pub.
The Tory Tribune of the Plebs is there to talk “common sense”; to say those things which connect with a section of the electorate most politicians would like to ignore. Teddy Taylor was one. An MP first in Glasgow and then Southend, he would use his prominence in parliament to call for the return of the birch. Geoffrey Dickens was another, a former boxer who campaigned to ban teddy bears and suggested homosexuality be criminalised to stop the spread of Aids. Both also, naturally, tried to bring back hanging. Theirs is a blokey, nuance-free politics, whereby villains get what they deserve, the sick filth is banned, and honest people live in peace. Lee Anderson has established himself as their heir.
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Anderson is never short of things to say. He calls himself “30p Lee” for his pronouncements on how easy it should be for poorer households to live on a budget. He’s hawkish on crime and immigration, and an advanced fighter in every aspect of the culture war — even boycotting England for “taking the knee”. Perhaps inevitably, an interview emerged last week where he endorsed the death penalty. Since his election in 2019, the MP for Ashfield has established himself as the most well-known of the Red Wall MPs. Across social media, he is loathed by his opponents as well as the more liberal, cosmopolitan wing of the Conservatives. He probably doesn’t care that much, buoyed by the supporters who seem to adore him. Some call him the most controversial man in parliament, others a genuine voice of the people. Either way, he’s made his mark.
Anderson, like Taylor, Dickens and others before him, is pugnacious and uncaring for niceties. Unlike them, however, he has been able to harness social media to boost his profile even further. Whereas the firebrands of the Seventies and Eighties had to wait for a journalist to call them, Anderson has shown he can make himself the party’s main character in just a tweet. Twitter has boosted his profile and advanced his political career — crowned last week by his promotion to Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party. Not bad, for someone who was a Labour councillor until 2018.
There is, of course, a a cynical edge to all this. Once, MPs commanded attention on the streets and in the broadsheets, either as a fighter in their constituency or an intellectual, policy-minded-grandee. Today, however, it’s all in the retweets and social media. The most well-known MPs, certainly beyond the front benches, have a carefully curated online presence. Dehenna Davison TikToks herself into being the “cool” Tory MP. Stella Creasy lip-syncs on Instagram after voting to ban protests around abortion clinics. Anderson’s a social media star in the same vein — curating a larger-than-life version of himself to stand out among his colleagues. It’s not that he doesn’t believe what he says, but he chooses to express it in the most performative way possible.
This does have its uses: Anderson occupies a useful niche, both for himself and the party. Tory MPs generally sit to the Left of their voters on most social issues, including crime. Many of the party’s rank and file support the death penalty. Around a third of voters do too, with that number increasing with more specific questions, such as when it comes to terrorists or murderous paedophiles. It’s a faction the Tories are never actually going to yield to, but that they want to keep inside the political tent. These are older, poorer voters — exactly the demographics the Tories are increasingly reliant on. Figures such as Anderson give them some red meat without really changing anything.
But is this useful to the party in the long term? On current predictions, Anderson will struggle to save his seat at the next election. It probably won’t even be close, and he may well slump to third behind the local Ashfield Independents. The picture is so bleak for the Tories, his defeat will be just a footnote as more famous faces fall and far bigger majorities are overturned. A reversion to the meanness of hang’em and flog’em policies won’t do much to stem this.
Serving him up as antidote to Sunak’s gloss is far from guaranteed to work either. As much as the party wants to appeal to an authoritarian base, its electoral coalition is much broader than many assume, and it’s hard to embrace it without pushing others out the other side. Many Tory voters see the death penalty as abhorrent and are largely conciliatory about immigration and poverty. About a quarter of Conservative voters oppose the Rwanda scheme, for example, while about half think it is “difficult” for the poor to raise their incomes.
Rather than win them over, Anderson’s approach could alienate these voters, especially in his more outlandish moments. He was previously suspended from Labour when his action to block Travellers from a field led to a charge of fly-tipping, and his parliamentary comments on Gypsies have also drawn strong criticism. Elsewhere, Private Eye has reported on his links to those who flirt with the far-Right, and his tussles with journalists are far from edifying. The praise he garners from “common-sense” Tories will be matched by dislike from The Sensibles. In the southeast, where the Tories are struggling to hold on to the professional classes, Anderson is unlikely to shore up anything.
Even in the Red Wall, it’s wrong to assume that everyone is a budding “30p Lee”. These areas were originally defined as being demographically Tory when it came to wealth and age profiles but alienated from the party culturally, largely because of Thatcherism. They are more varied in their outlook than most would admit. You might be able to pick up a street house for £70,000, but many of Lee’s voters will sit in comfortable detached houses with mid-six-figure asking prices. They’ve probably paid them off and are receiving generous pensions. The Tory success in these northern seats is linked to Brexit, but is driven by many of their traditional political factors.
Yet even if the Tories are wiped out, the party will always have its Andersons — just as Labour will always be a home for the hard Left. Where else are they to go? But this is where the Conservatives should take care. When the Conservatives have been successful, it’s been because they have been able to knit together the shy Tories, the quiet Tories and the wet Tories, along with the broad-chested, pugilistic tribune archetype. Taylor and Dickens, after all, were always on the outside of the party establishment, more tolerated than loved. As Labour learnt with Corbyn, giving too much prominence to the outliers alienates far more voters than it brings in — and, after their inevitable electoral failure, they tend to leave chaos in their wake.