The general election of 2019 was like no other. The Tories defied political gravity to emerge with a healthy majority after their 4th election as the largest party in Parliament. Labour was eviscerated, or perhaps was guilty of a massive act of self-harm, and returns as the Official Opposition, but badly shaken and still led by the team responsible for the debacle. The Liberal Democrats got a bigger percentage rise in their vote than even the Tories, but from a low base, and in Commons terms they have shrunk, and are now, perhaps happily, leaderless. The SNP has a load of MPs, and nothing much for them to do, and Northern Ireland may be turning their backs on Westminster sooner rather than later. I didn’t mention Wales. What is there to say?
None of those things actually explain why this election is different. It’s different, because the Tory Party is different. Johnson is mercurial World King at the head of a party of the similarly grandiose and dangerous. And they are planning to ensure that it stays that way, using any means necessary.
The election campaign run by the Tories was far dirtier than that run by any other party. They are a party that wants power for power’s sake. Where there are other centres of countervailing power, they will seek to weaken, sideline, or even abolish them.
In that sense, they’re continuity Tories, Thatcher-style. The over centralisation of power in Westminster was turbo-charged in the 1980s. Powerful centres of local government were abolished completely (the Greater London Council and the Metropolitan Counties), and the others had their ability to decide policy locally around such crucial things as education and housing severely curtailed. Tories have form when it comes to power grabs.
But this time their sights are on the fundamental nature of the state. A professional, politically impartial, Civil Service is set to be weakened further, in the American manner, with political appointments from outside to “shake things up”. International Development is to be turned into a highly politicised tool of, not British, but Tory foreign interests. The House of Lords is first to be packed with stooges, then ‘reformed’ until it becomes nothing more than a pleasant London club for retired Tory Grandees. As for the judiciary, they look likely to be an early target.
For in strength the Tories plan not magnanimity, but vengeance.
Expect a lot of rule changes immediately to restrict the power of the Commons to hold the government to account. They’ll be technical measures, will probably be scarcely reported, but they will change the balance of power, handing No 10 the whip hand over mere MPs.
The courts, and the wider criminal justice system, have been weakened steadily since 2010. Access to justice for the average citizen is now much more difficult, with a loss of legal aid, a raising of fees, the restriction of access to timely redress through the closure of courts, and much else. But all that was merely ‘shrinking the state’, the punitive effects being merely an amusing by-product. Now they mean business.
The abolition of the Supreme Court seems likely. It could merely be made less powerful, but the Tory taste for vengeance suggests that abolition would be more ‘popular’ with right-wing newspapers and Tory MPs and members. Elsewhere expect legislation to limit the power of the judiciary to hold the executive (government) to account.
This is radical stuff, only hinted at in the manifesto, but within the power of a government with a solid majority facing a feeble opposition.
Which is why we cannot wait for other parties to sort themselves out. By the time they have done so, the government will have done a whole raft of things, particularly around electoral boundaries, voter suppression measures, and more. The resistance must begin now.
A lesson of the last few years is that this country has a taste for extra-party political movements with clear goals. The campaigns for another referendum lost, but we were defeated by a rigged system. What we won was a moral authority which ought not to squandered now. Our side marched in our millions, organised local groups which worked their socks off on High Streets and in market squares around the country come rain or shine. We know what can be done, and we’ve all learned skills which are transferable to other political tasks.
We need a Resistance!
The Resistance can happen now. It doesn’t need to wait for the parties to lick their wounds. We need in the first instance to establish some kind of loose convention to come up with things we can agree on, whatever party we support. Defence of the judiciary, the restoration of local government with power to do things, reform of parliament, and a new voting system ought to be on the list.
Personally I’d like to see a wider movement calling for all state education to be secular and under democratic local control, the restoration of a nation-wide professional public library service, and a ‘culture covenant’ to protect local museums, galleries, theatres, parks, and municipal sports facilities, giving them enough money to run properly, professionally, and with free or inexpensive access for all citizens. But even if we just stick to the nuts and bolts of democracy, that’s a start.
For the government needs to know that we are watching them. They are not our masters. They can rig, lie, scheme, dissemble, bamboozle all they like, but we need an amplified voice to call them out, and above all, to spread knowledge of how the system works, to train up active citizens, and to campaign on specific, concrete constitutional demands.
So how do we do this, people?