Buyer's Remorse & the Johnson Government

By the editor, Aug 17 2020 11:24AM

43.6% - this was the share of the popular vote for the Conservatives in the 2019 General Election, and this is roughly the share they would get if there was an election now, according to various opinion polls. Support went up earlier in the year as the Covid-19 crisis struck, and fell later on, after the Cummings debacle. But for the moment it appears that nearly all of those who voted for Mr Johnson at the last election would do so again.

Many of those critical of the Government can't fathom this. There seems almost universal agreement that the Government has handled the Covid-19 crisis badly. The economy was already in a bad shape, and is now being hit as hard as anywhere in the developed world. Keir Starmer's approval ratings are at record levels. The Government's claim that Brexit would be "done" by an "oven-ready deal" in January looks ludicrous. On Brexit, Covid-19, Cummings, and otherwise, backbench dissatisfaction with the Government has grown quickly. Polls showed widespread anger at the Cummings episode. There are rolling sexual and financial scandals affecting backbenchers and ministers, adding to the sense that those in charge consider that different rules apply to them. And recently there's been widespread condemnation of the Governement's handling of examination grading.

Yet support remains stubbornly high. Reasons for this might include continuing distrust of the opposition parties and "rallying round the flag" at a time of crisis. But it also seems likely that one factor is "buyer's remorse" - a reluctance by those who voted Conservative to consider they made a mistake.

How does "buyer's remorse" operate as far as voting is concerned? What might determine how long it takes for people to change their minds, if at all? Some factors are suggested below.

1. The natural time lag must often be months, if not years, from a general election. For example, there was a dramatic (and permanent) drop in popularity of the Major Government after the UK's ignominious exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism in September 1992, after its election victory that April. But it actually took about 6 months for a significant decrease in support to show up in the polls. It's likely that having "invested" support in a Government for a potential 5 year term, people are reluctant to admit they made a mistake for some time. The longer the time period since an election, the shorter may be the effect of any defining event in prompting a decline in support. Since the Johnson Government is only 8 months old, it may be too early for much buyer's remorse yet, even though the seeds of it might already have been planted.

2. "Tribal" tendencies: voters may be more reluctant to admit failings of Government when they identify closely with a group that is represented by it. This can be seen in the USA: it perplexes people that the obvious shortcomings of the Trump administration haven't led to a complete collapse in support. But Trump's base so identifies with him that it doesn't seem to matter very much what he does or says. A similar effect might apply in the UK as far as pro-Brexit voters are concerned. Many may identify themselves with others and against a "liberal elite", which, they consider, sought to thwart their referendum vote, and ignored their concerns and interests for years. For some this may be a permanent shift of allegiance; but even for those whose support for the Conservatives was less wholehearted, this sense of identity may act as a brake on switching to another party. It's possible that the Government will lose its hold over this group over time, now that Brexit itself has happened, and difficulties and splits on implementation emerge. No doubt this is partly why the Government is keen to foment cultural divisions on other issues: to keep the tribe together.

3. It's easier to change your mind when something happens subsequently that you think you couldn't have foreseen. Those who voted for the Johnson Government are less likely to turn against it if it appears to do "exactly what it said on the tin", however disastrous others may think the results turn out to be. But if the Government does something unexpected, which also damages the interests of its backers, or otherwise upsets them, it's more likely to lose support. So for example a particularly "hard" Brexit that inflicts severe economic damage on some of the regions that switched to supporting the Conservatives may not lead to disaffection as quickly as might otherwise be expected - the blame might shift elsewhere (to the EU, for example). Covid-19, on the other hand, is an example of something completely unexpected, and the Government's handling of it might leave it more susceptible. "No one could have predicted what a hash they'd make of that" someone who voted for them might think. The less predictable a Government's failing, the less blame might be felt by those who voted for it, and accordingly the more inclined they may be to shift allegiance.

4. No one likes to be taken for a fool, or to be betrayed by those whose trust appeared to be warranted; but it's easier to accept the latter than the former. Many of those who voted Conservative considered that Johnson and colleagues were standing up for the "people" against the "elite", and they certainly weren't going to listen to those from this "elite" who told them they were making a mistake. But if the those in the Johnson Government start to behave like the elite themselves, those voters might start wondering if they've been conned. This may be why the Cummings incident was viewed so unfavourably (and why it may yet be a slow-acting poison for the Government). It may also help explain why the Government is so eager to assault supposedly liberal elite institutions such as the civil service, universities, the legal profession, and the BBC. It may be aware that trust from its new voters rests on shallow foundations, and it needs to keep proving it's on their side, against the establishment.

5. The greater the investment, the harder it is to acknowledge it was mistaken. It's easier to write off the duff car that cost £1000 than the one that cost £10,000. Those equivocal about support for the Conservatives are more likely to change their minds sooner than those who, for example, were so disgusted with the Corbyn Labour Party that they said "never again". Some psephologists have identified long term shifts of support for the Conservatives in key electoral battlegrounds, and such groups may be less likely to switch. However, much of the electorate does seem to have been pretty volatile in recent years (the last European Parliament elections being an example), which might suggest voters are less invested in their choices than might appear at the moment.

All this of course supposes that there are sufficient reasons for voters to get disenchanted by the Government. And it's possible that those who didn't vote for it might be blind to its plus points - no doubt there's a psychological effect in the opposite direction ("spurner's remorse"?) - I have to admit I do struggle to see what its plus points could conceivably be. Or it could be that events will turn, perhaps a vaccine is found soon and the economy recovers fast, and any reservations held previously will be forgotten about.

I still think it's likely that it won't be too long before buyer's remorse will set in, at least among some of those whose vote for the Conservatives was less than wholehearted. That support level in the low forties may be more fragile than it looks.

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