The former PM claimed that people never vote on the past
Liz Truss has said and done some strange things in her political career.
There was her pork markets speech, of course, and the Margaret Thatcher cosplay. Then came the fever dream of her brief time as PM — followed by a post-prime ministerial career of blaming everyone but herself for crashing the economy.
However, she’s waited until this year’s Conservative Party Conference in Manchester to unleash the wrongest of all her wrong-headed ideas. In a BBC interview she said that “people never vote on the past: they vote on what is your future prospectus and who do they think is going to do a better job.”
With this latest intervention, the Tories should realise that the mind of Liz Truss is once again at odds with reality. Really, people do “vote on the past”. Indeed, they vote on the basis of things that happened before they were born. Take Ireland, for instance, where for decades the big two parties were Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Ideologically, they occupy the same centrist space on the political spectrum — but they were on different sides in the 1922-23 Irish Civil War. That was enough to define the country’s party system for the best part of the next century.
An even older divide can be seen on the Polish electoral map — where the strongest areas for the two biggest parties in the country today are delineated by the border between the German and Russian Empires (when, from 1795 to 1918, Poland was partitioned between them).
Or, for a British example, consider the “Red Wall” constituencies of Northern England, the Midlands and Wales. Wrongly considered a pre-Brexit Labour heartland, the Red Wall is better described as an area in which the Conservatives have persistently underperformed in general elections. The reason why they didn’t win more of the seats (until Brexit) was because of multi-generational anti-Tory sentiment.
One way or another, the past is present in every general election. However, it needn’t be the deep past. Voters are also influenced by more recent events. A fresh memory of an epic government screw-up is especially motivating.
The classic example is Black Wednesday — when, on the 16 September 1992, a financial crisis forced the the UK out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (the predecessor to the single currency). It was an utter humiliation at the time, but the UK made a strong economic recovery and by the next general election — almost five years later — the future was looking bright. In fact, the economic outlook was much rosier than it is today.
So did the voters forgive and forget the Tories for Black Wednesday? Er, no. The truth is that once a government has breached a certain level of political ineptitude, the electorate neither forgives nor forgets. Voters may have to wait years before settling accounts — but sooner or later it will happen.
Liz Truss’s idea that voters only care about the future and not the past is self-serving. It provides a basis on which she could run again for the leadership of the Conservative Party. Or, at least, it would do if her latest theory was at all credible. But, as history makes clear, it isn’t.