The political reporting of the last week bears some resemblance to the art of making a discount sausage roll. You take some meaty substance- in this case, the fact that this government is run by a cabinet of millionaires, that they have introduced a tax cut for the rich while slapping VAT on all manner of working-man lunch fare, and most recently started a fuel panic in the total absence of any impending strike- process the hell out of it on Twitter and the blogosphere and wrap it all up in an appealing, though haplessly flaky, veneer of ‘serious reportage.’
What many already knew and believed of Cameron and pals was spread across the nation thanks to ‘pastygate’- the embarrassing revelation that George Osborne can’t remember when he last ate at Greggs bakery, and that David Cameron was caught lying about when he last bought one of Cornwall’s finest baked exports. The scandal had the unexpected side effect of summing up all the issues of class and wealth surrounding the Budget and cash-for-access debacle, and communicating more effectively than any Guardian front-page just how out of touch this government is.
Fantastically for Labour, the end result has been a ten-point poll boost and the revelation that 2 out of 3 voters think that the Conservatives are the “party of the rich.” However, Ed and co should be hesitant about popping the champagne corks just yet. As damaging as ‘pastygate’ may seem to the Tories reputation now, it has to be remembered that such storms have been weathered before by politicians of all stripes, and that public perceptions that seem striking in the immediate wake of these PR disasters simply emphasise underlying trends.
A YouGov survey of public opinion on the three leading parties held at the beginning of this month showed that 49% of people thought that the Conservatives “seem to appeal to one section of society rather than to the whole country”. The Tories have always been seen as the party of the rich. They will never be able to clear themselves of this charge, so they can take hits on issues like ‘pastygate’ as it simply affirms what the public already know. Increasing the tax on pies and other baked goods that they don’t eat in the first place will not change their reputation. That mud will stick forever. The addition of a few splashes of gravy won’t make a difference.
Importantly, such labels do not change voting intention when push comes to shove. Margaret Thatcher was an infamous ‘milk snatcher’ before she even became leader of the opposition. She went on to win three general elections. Tony Blair became ‘Tony Bliar’ in the wake of the scandal over tobacco advertising (in an incident uncannily similar to the cash-for-access scandal engulfing David Cameron right now), and again following the Iraq War. It didn’t stop him achieving a historic third term.
Despite what those championing ‘pastygate’ think, the public have a general understanding of the character of their leaders before such scandals break. This is especially true of that part of the population that actually votes. What all the PR scandals of the last 30 years show is that the people know what they think- they just don’t vote on that knowledge.
Louie Woodall is Assistant Editor of the Young Fabians Blog