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Boris of Bolsover? Johnson and the Empathy Gap

Stephen Colegrave delves into the Prime Minister’s empathy gap and why it will inevitably let down the Conservative Party’s new northern voters.

Johnson and the
Empathy Gap

Stephen Colegrave delves into the Prime Minister’s empathy gap and why it will inevitably let down the Conservative Party’s new northern voters.

The Prime Minister is an ambitious man. He already has his eye on the next general election and a ten years reign. Cleverly, Boris Johnson has identified that the working-class voters in the north that lent him their votes to “Get Brexit Done” must be convinced to break with tradition to vote Conservative twice in order to ensure this.

The problem is that it appears he doesn’t understand, or worse, have any empathy for them. But, then why should he?

Johnson is a product of Eton College, Oxford University and a classical education. Balliol College, where he lived as an undergraduate at Oxford, has created more Prime Ministers than any other institution in the country. There, the only working people he is likely to have come into contact with were college porters – the last survivors of Victorian England’s below-stairs servants.

I doubt Johnson has read George Orwell, been inside a working-class home for longer than a photo call or ever had to put something back in a supermarket because he couldn’t afford it. After all, this is the man who complained about surviving on a paltry prime ministerial salary of just over £13,000 per month. He isn’t two months away from losing his house. Indeed, most of his new voters’ lives may well be transformed if they had a home guaranteed and rent-free for five years like him.

He can make all the right sounds and say all the warm words, but he is unlikely to be able to understand what his new northern supporters are feeling or experiencing – which is the requirement of empathy.

This gap will arguably be Johnson’s biggest challenge going forward.

The Poorest in Northern Europe

If the Prime Minister is going to persuade these Brexiters to lend him their votes twice, he will need actually to do something about poverty, the lack of social mobility, and the abject lack of hope in some of the poorest communities in Europe, that have been ravaged by nine years of austerity under the Conservatives.

The gap between the rich and poor has widened in recent years with real effects on people’s lives. Rich men, for instance, live for 10 years longer on average compared to those who are poor (a life expectancy of 84, versus 74), according to the Lancet.

Nine of the top 10 poorest areas in northern Europe are in the UK, including South Yorkshire, Lancashire, Durham and Tees Valley, and East Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire, according to Eurostat/EU. By contrast, the richest area – of which Johnson has much more knowledge and, arguably, empathy – is inner London.


The Department for Work and Pension estimates that more than 21% of the British population live in relative poverty, with many of these are in work – albeit it on zero-hour contracts. If the current Government wants to win a second term, it will have to address this. If it can’t, it will have nowhere to hide. The development of the gig economy and the so-called fourth industrial revolution with artificial intelligence replacing jobs is only going to put more pressure and create more poverty in these new blue areas.

The question is: does the Government want to change this or understand how to? The first signs are not encouraging.

An Unhealthy State

During the 2019 General Election campaign, the NHS was cited by Boris Johnson as being his key priority – even though every time he stepped inside a hospital it was a personal and PR disaster.

Whether he was taking a reporter’s phone while refusing to look at a photo of a boy lying on a hospital floor or making political points against patients’ wishes, he always looked uncomfortable because he was coming into contact with ordinary people and ordinary people’s suffering.

Conservative polling showed that the health service was a key concern and Johnson had to rebut allegations that the NHS would be sold off as part of trade negotiations with the US – but there is plenty of wiggle room for him to help US big pharma companies increase medicine prices in return for chlorinating our chicken.

The extra £36 billion he says will be committed to the NHS will only be catching up on what should have been spent on the NHS during the nine years of austerity – when £3 billion per year was under-spent, compared to GDP spend rates in the rest of Europe. Worst still, when the Conservative Party’s manifesto claims are unravelled, the 40 new hospitals promises are not fully funded, only their plans and scoping. Let’s not get into the miraculous numbers of nurses pledged.

If the Prime Minister had real empathy he would not weasel around with budget commitments for the NHS but really make it work with the kind of support for the service that was outlined in the Labour manifesto. Also, he wouldn’t be waiting for cross-party talks on social care, but have proposals to put proper provision in place for people who aren’t rich and can’t pay care fees.

Causes Not Symptoms

If Boris Johnson wants to lead an empathetic Government, he would go beyond dealing with the symptoms to the real causes of poverty, crime and ill-health.

The Northern Powerhouse is all about infrastructure and not about how to really create social mobility and aspiration. The Prime Minister is determined to get more police officers on the beat, lengthen prison sentences – but what about programmes to stop youngsters falling into crime, the funding of more probation officers to support prisoners on release, more effective rehabilitation schemes or public health initiatives?

Professor Michael Marmot, in his brilliant 2010 review of health inequalities in England, showed the interconnectivity of housing, work and poverty to the causes of ill health. The same is true of crime. The answer to the causes rather than symptoms of these deep problems are not the sole prerogative of socialism, and tackling them starts with understanding and empathy.

Johnson’s lack of empathy was never more lacking than in his response to the death of Jack Merritt and Sakia Jones in the London Bridge terror attack in the run-up to December’s General Election. He seemed to have no understanding that everything they had dedicated their lives to was the opposite of his exploitation of their deaths for populist gain. If he had an ounce of empathy, he would have sent personal condolences to Jack Merritt’s father, which he never did.

If Johnson really wants a decade in power, he needs to understand and empathise with the people he has avoided for most of his life. People who die too early, who can’t sleep because they are stressed about debt and can’t see a way out of their problems. Extending Universal Credit, taking workers’ rights out of the Brexit deal and allowing zero-hour contracts to flourish are not the solution to improving the lives of people who live in former mining villages like Bolsover.

The Prime Minister has expressed his keenness to be the servant of his new voters, but he is ill-equipped to provide them with what they want – beyond Brexit and shiny political announcements that will not really meet their needs.

The only way I think he could attempt to tackle this empathy gap would be to move to Bolsover and live with a family. Perhaps such an experiment could lend itself to a new type of reality TV programme, Johnson of Bolsover, narrated by Denis Skinner.

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