UnHerd polling shows that a populist strain in British politics persists
A new UnHerd Britain poll released today confirms that Britons still support lockdowns. When asked if they agreed with the statement that, in retrospect, lockdowns were a mistake, 54% of people disagreed, compared with only 27% who agreed.
Most interestingly, the results were very similar across different socioeconomic demographics and even among Labour and Conservative voters. This is certainly related to the fact that the founding myth of lockdowns — that they were a necessary evil to avoid an incalculably high number of Covid deaths — is still held by most people to be true, even though it is not supported by evidence, and ends up trumping all the negative effects of the policy.
It also shows that, on highly polarising and identity-defining issues such as lockdowns, people’s opinions are virtually unshakeable: no amount of rational discussion is likely to change what are ultimately pre-political, tribal beliefs. It’s no coincidence that there is only one party whose members think lockdowns were a mistake: the Brexit Party.
This indicates that people’s stance on lockdown wasn’t — indeed, isn’t — driven primarily by their first-hand experience with the policy but, instead, largely by their pre-existing level of trust or distrust in elites, political institutions and the media. It confirms that “populism” versus “centrism” remains a defining feature of British politics — but it’s just that the former camp has been largely reabsorbed into the latter since Brexit, which has given way to less divisive issues such as the cost-of-living crisis and the NHS.
The virtual overlap between Conservative and Labour voters over lockdown, with an almost identical majority disagreeing with the notion that lockdowns were a mistake, may appear to confirm that Britain has entered a post-populist phase. Indeed, Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage have been replaced by the two managerial and technocratic figures of Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer, who have largely indistinguishable positions on the major issues, and who have successfully steered the two main parties away from the radicalism of the last decade back towards the centre ground. However, the poll also shows that the Brexit divide still exists, even though it has been temporarily tapered over, and is likely to re-emerge in some form or another in the future.
The nearly 30% of citizens who think lockdowns were a mistake are unlikely to feel represented by either of the two major parties — on issues ranging from immigration to globalisation to the war in Ukraine. This silent (for now) but sizeable minority shows that there’s a potentially large space for a new populist party in Britain, and that the management of the pandemic will continue to remain an important divide in British society. Attempts to sweep the events of the past three years under the carpet won’t make the issue go away: they will only radicalise those who feel deeply betrayed by the political establishment.