Boris Johnson can’t expect to hold onto his borrowed working-class votes after his manifesto-breaking National Insurance levy.

By William Hallowell.

In December 2019, the Prime Minister won a huge majority for the Conservatives.

It was an incredibly dramatic election; Jeremy Corbyn was humiliated, losing his second election to the Tories, eventually leading to his resignation as Labour leader; Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson didn’t even manage to win her own seat, forcing her to resign; and a large proportion of northern, working-class votes, which would traditionally have been given to the Labour Party, defected to the Conservatives.

Many, particularly the Reds still bitter about their election loss, blame Brexit.

They say it was the ‘Brexit election’ – the Tories promised to deliver a Brexit strategy, while Labour, to use Johnson’s rather catchy catchphrase “dither[ed] and delay[ed]”.

However, this is not an excuse for Labour to explain how and why they lost to Johnson, in anger as though their votes had been stolen. Instead, it is an explanation of Labour’s shortcomings and Tory promises to oversee the democratic mandate of the Brexit referendum in 2016: to neither dither, nor delay.

Whatever arguments are advanced, or explanations given, for the result of the last General Election, whether from a win or loss perspective, it remains a fact that Brexit-voting, working-class northerners were fed up of the Labour Party’s, and Jeremy Corbyn’s, indecisiveness. They wanted their party to represent them, and their 2016 votes. However, they didn’t.

To compare – and, again, to use Johnson’s 2019 slogan – the Conservatives promised to “Get Brexit Done”. That was at the forefront of the party’s campaign. The public, whether Leave or Remain, were sick of the stagnation of Britain’s EU exit, and the Prime Minister saw that as an opportunity.

Labour, on the other hand, had a strange, indecisive and weakly “neutral” Brexit stance. Corbyn promised to negotiate a Brexit deal from this “neutral” position, which demonstrated his indecisiveness, and said he would offer up a second Brexit referendum – a simple In or Out – and then, if the public mood was still attuned to leaving the European Union, hold another referendum on the deal he would “negotiate” from a “neutral position”, further demonstrating his lack of leadership and indecisiveness. Unfortunately for Corbyn, this is not what the public, and in particular the working-class, wanted.

But why does all this matter, and what does it have to do with the Government’s National Insurance (NI) increase or ‘Levelling Up’?

Simply that these working-class, Brexit-backing northern votes were given on loan – and Johnson recognised that at the time. It is highly improbable, despite this unforeseeable pandemic and the Prime Minister’s handling of it aside, that Johnson will win such an impressive majority again, arguably down to the working-class support that defected from the Labour Party.

Therefore, in a bid to retain this support, Boris Johnson announced his clever ‘Levelling Up’ scheme. Bluntly, and arguably cynically too, the Government are going to pump huge amounts of cash into poor areas, certainly more northern areas, and definitely Labour heartland areas. It is almost so ingenious, so scheming, that Dominic Cummings could have thought of it – and, well, he probably did. Though, while we are yet to see the effects of it in terms of both the public’s mood and as to how far these deprived areas will have been ‘levelled up’, it was almost certain to have kept these borrowed votes potentially permanent – or at least still Blue until the next General Election.

However, this has all now changed. To provide better funding for the social care sector, which has seen calls for better funding increasingly over the last few years, the Government has unpopularly raised NI contributions by 1.25 percentage points. Who would have thought that a populist, who achieved a hugely outstanding majority on the basis of a populist policy, would have introduced such an unpopular levy, in such an un-populist-like manner?

Despite the actual decision to increase taxes on the younger, lower-earning, arguably even mostly working-class people, it seems that those who are most outraged by this decision are drawing attention to Government spending over the course of the pandemic: money for mates (contracts for friends and family, and for those from whom senior figures would seem to gain greatly, should they hand contracts to the right people). David Cameron’s Greensill lobbying, the “failed” Test and Trace system – as Labour deem it – and handing £50m or so to the French to prevent illegal immigrant Channel crossings, but who have instead been seen escorting those dinghies across the water.

Justifiably, the sentiment is: why are ordinary people being taxed more to increase funding for social care when the Government has, arguably, been spending the wrong amount of money on the wrong things? That, and the fact that tax increases are generally unpopular anyway.

The Free School Meals (FSM) scandal before Christmas was another example: the Government essentially said it didn’t have the money. It’s the same with NHS workers’ wages. Many are angry that they are being forced to pay for Government shortcomings, when it has been spending money on things it should not have been, and not spending it on things that it should have been. The anger is justifiable.

And it is working-class, and generally younger, people who stand to lose the money they may well desperately need. For those earning up to £20,000 a year, the 1.25% increase means an extra £130 a year.

This will likely have a dramatic effect on low-income people, especially those who may be single parents or have several children, as well as university graduates. For those earning up to £30,000 a year, the new levy will mean an additional £255 a year. Even for comfortable middle-class earners earning up to £50,000 a year, it will mean an extra £505 every year. The anger felt by the public, and not just working-class earners, is justified.

The Government’s ‘Levelling Up’ slogan will likely mean little to working-class voters, particularly those who enthusiastically voted Tory in 2019, as a result of this tax increase.

It is hard to see how Johnson will retain his large majority while his popularity becomes increasingly questionable, in addition to rumours of another winter lockdown and the wholly intrusive and autocratic ‘vaccine passport’ policy.

For more from William Hallowell please follow him on Twitter.

© 2021 William Hallwell

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