Voters care more about the issues affecting their everyday lives
It is often said that it was sleaze that did it for the John Major government of 1992-97. But did it really? Scandals such as ‘cash-for-questions’ and ‘back to basics’ unquestionably inflicted damage on the Tory brand during those years. But, in truth, sleaze was only part of the story. The ignominy of Black Wednesday, which saw interest rates ramped up to 15% and helped to destroy the Conservative party’s reputation for economic competence, surely did far more to repel the average voter than revelations about the financial or sexual indiscretions of individual Tory MPs.
That is why Sir Keir Starmer and the Labour party need to be careful. Assuming that media furores such as the current one surrounding the refurbishment of the prime minister’s flat will automatically translate into a shift in their favour in the polls is risky. In the long run — and even accounting for the fact that this particular affair involves the PM himself — these brouhahas tend not to be electorally significant.
Of course it is right that scrutiny be exercised and questions asked where alleged wrongdoing has occurred. But as any sort of strategy for setting Labour back on a path to power, attacking ‘Tory sleaze’ is a dead end. While voters would certainly expect the guilty to be held to account if rules have been broken, they are ultimately more preoccupied with the issues affecting their everyday lives — jobs, wages, housing, the cost of living, the safety of the streets — and they expect their politicians to be so, too.
It is no surprise, therefore, that a YouGov poll published today shows that the scandal over the flat refurbishment has not cut through to the electorate. In fact, the Tory lead over Labour has increased by one percentage point in the past week. These figures demonstrate the truth that if voters perceive the government to be getting the fundamentals right most of the time, they are willing to cut considerable slack on what they see as the trivial stuff.
Elections are won and lost on the bread-and-butter issues that matter most to people. Any party aspiring to government must focus on these and be careful about investing too much time and energy on Westminster scuttlebutt.
The electorate isn’t stupid. It knows that, in the final analysis, no party is naturally sleazy and none inherently virtuous. Labour, of course, was dogged by its own scandals when in power — Bernie Ecclestone, ‘cash-for-honours’, Peter Mandelson’s two resignations, and even its own pickle over wallpaper — but, individually and cumulatively, these did not ultimately make a major difference to the party’s performance at the ballot box.
Iraq, by contrast, did far more to undermine public trust in the Labour party than any episode of so-called ‘sleaze’ during its period in government.
When it comes to any new political scandal, the feverish excitement that often grips the SW1 bubble tends to be in inverse proportion to the importance attached to it by the voters. The media would do well to bear that in mind. And so would the Labour party.