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The Tories’ Creeping Authoritarianism

The last decade has seen the Conservative Party run a concerted campaign against democratic and civil rights - if they win next week, all indications are that it will get much worse.

Tom Bower stands out as one of the British media’s leading fantasists, in a very competitive field. His widely praised and serialised biography of Jeremy Corbyn was “a farrago of falsehood and insinuation,” in the words of Peter Oborne. 

This week, Bower dredged the depths of his imagination for a lurid article in the Sunday Times, claiming that a Labour victory on December 12th would be followed “within hours” by a “Marxist coup” that was “unrestrained by parliament or law.”

It’s tempting to laugh off this nonsense, but it’s just a condensed version of the line that Tory pundits and politicians have been peddling for several years. The message they’re trying to convey is that a Labour government won’t simply be undesirable: it will be fundamentally illegitimate, and any means — fair or foul — are justified to prevent it from happening.

This scaremongering is a classic case of projection. The Conservatives themselves have undermined democratic pluralism and civil liberties during their time in office, with help from their press backers, and they’re gearing up for a concerted attack if they win a majority of seats. It won’t be a “coup” — just an acceleration of the trends we’ve already seen at work. 

Defeating the Tories is essential to stop this agenda in its tracks, and to ensure the next few years result in the expansion of democracy, not its further erosion.

“A Proper Balance”

The Conservative manifesto may be a slim document when it comes to social or economic policy. But it contains some clear signals that the party intends to change the rules of the game, under the brazenly deceptive heading “Protecting Our Democracy”:

One of the strengths of the UK’s constitution is its ability to evolve — as times have changed, so have Parliament, government and the judiciary. Today, that need is greater than ever . . . after Brexit we also need to look at the broader aspects of our constitution: the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts; the functioning of the Royal Prerogative; the role of the House of Lords; and access to justice for ordinary people. The ability of our security services to defend us against terrorism and organised crime is critical. We will update the Human Rights Act and administrative law to ensure that there is a proper balance between the rights of individuals, our vital national security and effective government.

The Windrush scandal made the real attitude of this government to “justice for ordinary people” and “the rights of individuals” painfully apparent. It’s often said that you should look carefully at the way governments treat immigrants and refugees, because it shows how they would treat their own citizens if they got the chance. In this case, the victims of what the Tories call “effective government” were British citizens; however, that wasn’t enough to protect them from being deported. 

Windrush happened under the existing legislative framework. But the Conservative Party still considers that framework to be too constraining, and wants to gut human rights legislation to increase the power of the British state over its citizens. 

Boris Johnson’s pledge to strike a new balance between “Government, Parliament and the courts” also has an ominous ring to it, coming barely two months after he broke the law by suspending parliament in an attempt to ram through his hard-Brexit programme. 

In the same section of the manifesto, the Tories promise to “protect the integrity of our democracy, by introducing identification to vote at polling stations.” Like the US Republicans from whom they draw inspiration, they’re using bogus claims about “electoral fraud” as a cover for their real objective: voter suppression, targeting those who are least likely to vote for the Conservative Party. 

This, of course, comes after the Tories already severely curtailed the rights of trade unions this past decade. The anti-union laws they’ve introduced routinely result in courts scrapping industrial action – as we recently saw with the Communication Workers Union – and all the signs are that if they win again, those laws will get worse. A Tory candidate in Dorset even took to strike-breaking on the campaign trail this week in Dorset, while the Tories have pledged to ban all-out rail strikes.

There are any number of other examples of the Tories’ attacks on democracy in office, from gagging charities during general elections, to attempts to fix the new electoral boundaries in their favour, to the so-called ‘snoopers charter’ and massive expansion of state surveillance. They’ve also pledged to ban councils from engaging in human rights boycotts over Israel similar to those undertaken against apartheid South Africa (an old friend, of course).

Illiberal Democracy

Suspending parliament, removing constraints on executive power, attacking free association, extending surveillance, denying opposition supporters the right to vote — this is the kind of charge-sheet used to justify sanctions against governments in Latin America. 

And the current Tory election campaign has been profoundly illiberal: stigmatising minorities, demonising the main opposition party, and propagating blatant falsehoods without a hint of shame.

None of this means, of course, that the Tories will suspend elections or set up a one-party state. They will chip away at the substance of democracy while preserving its forms. But the recent experience of countries like Hungary and Turkey shows that formal democracy is compatible with an authoritarian mode of rule.

When a prime minister chooses to launch his campaign flanked by rank after rank of uniformed police, when he’s briefing to the press his plans to ‘throw away the key’ for prisoners, when his government isn’t sure if it’s constrained by the actions of parliament, it would be complacent to assume that Britain is incapable of going through a similar regression, particularly in the event of a new economic crisis. 

We can be quite sure of one thing: a Johnson government will launch further attacks on the rights of citizens, in the name of fighting crime, terrorism or electoral fraud. Those intentions have been clearly signposted, in both the text of the Conservative manifesto and the rancid campaign the party has deployed in its support. A Labour victory next week can put a halt to that, and begin repairing the damage that the Tories have already done.