Everyone hates the individual members of the cabinet, but somehow the Conservative Party as a whole makes itself immune to criticism, argues Sam Glover.
The current cabinet is filled with some of the most hated politicians ever to work in Westminster. The personal ratings of basically every one of the Tory big beasts, with the exception of Boris Johnson, are completely dire. As of February, George Osborne had a net favourability rating of -24, Iain Duncan Smith (IDS) had a favourability rating of -22, and Michael Gove had the impressively awful rating of -29. Worst of all fared the health minister, Jeremy Hunt, who had a rating of -48.
Polling shows time and time again that the electorate think that George Osborne is rubbish at handling the economy, Jeremy Hunt is destroying the NHS, and Nicky Morgan and her predecessor, Michael Gove, implemented terrible reforms to education. Yet somehow, none of it sticks to the Conservative Party. Last May, the Tories increased their number of seats and formed a majority government. There is a mystifying disconnect: people think that the cabinet are odious and ghastly, but that the Tories are not all that bad. The Conservative Party polls at -14, which sounds pretty bad, but it’s higher than any of the other major parties.
The current civil war within the Tories has illustrated just how good the Tories are at making sure that their cabinet members become lightning rods for criticism that should be directed at the party as a whole; most of the discussion surrounding IDS’s recent resignation has been about how badly it bodes for George Osborne’s chances of becoming next Tory leader, and even Labour has fallen into this trap. Instead of criticising the Conservative Party, Jeremy Corbyn has called on the chancellor to resign.
The problem is this sort of attack will do no damage unless George Osborne is the next Conservative leader, which in all likelihood he won’t be. Although David Cameron’s political career is often seen to be inextricably linked with that of his chancellor, the truth is that Cameron knows that it is a good thing if criticism that could be levied at the Conservatives is instead levied against individual ministers, and his leaked comments on George Osborne “messing up” show that he would much rather Osborne act as the fall-guy for PIP (Personal Independence Payment) cuts than allow the government to shoulder the blame.
In cognitive psychology, there is a bias formally called the “group attractiveness effect,” informally known as the “cheerleader effect”. The bias is this: if a group of not especially attractive people all sit together in a group, the fact that they are in a group makes them appear more attractive than they really are. When lots of people are together, their idiosyncrasies average out and become less noticeable. Something similar is happening to the Conservative Party – when we examine any of their records individually it becomes clear that they are awful, but when taken together, they look a lot more competent and apt to govern than they actually are. When people went to the polls on 7 May last year, they weren’t thinking about how much of a slime George Osborne was, or how much they despised Jeremy Hunt. Instead, Lynton Crosby’s rhetoric had wormed its way into their brains, and people believed that the Conservatives were a competent crew with a “long-term economic plan”.
Labour can learn a lot from this Tory technique, about both how to begin to erode a Conservative polling advantage and how to copy it so that they can take less flak when there is an unforced Labour error. Imagine, for example, if Labour had pinned the entire financial crisis on Gordon Brown. It would have been completely unfair, but it could have done them a world of good in 2015.
When people stop thinking of a party as responsible for its faults, and start thinking of individual politicians as the ones who brought about a crisis, it becomes a lot easier to get elected: you just make sure that the hated politicians are not involved in the election campaign at all. This is what makes Boris Johnson such a terrifying figure for Labour – if he becomes Tory leader, with his current personal rating of 10 standing in stark contrast to Jeremy Corbyn’s -29, he would ensure that the electorate forgot how much they disliked Osborne and went and voted Conservative.
The Conservative strategy of divorcing the reputation of their ministers from that of the party has proved remarkably successful – Labour would do well to emulate them. If the party wants to win in 2020, there needs to be a marked shift in the way it sells itself, and although it is a sad indictment of British politics, the only way they will be able to win is through the negative, dog-whistle politics that Lynton Crosby has imported from Australia. It is difficult to imagine a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn that would resort to the kind of politics necessary to win an election – which leaves Labour supporters being forced to choose between their hearts and their heads.