openDemocracyUK: Opinion

This Tory manifesto is chilling - liberals must vote tactically to protect democracy

The Conservative manifesto contains hints of policies that could lead to despotic power. We need need an ‘anti-authoritarian alliance’.

Guy Aitchison
5 December 2019
Boris Johnson holding the Conservative Manifesto
Boris Johnson launching the Conservative 2019 Manifesto in Telford, November 25
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unreguser/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

We now have a clear picture of the type of government that Boris Johnson will lead should he secure a majority on December 12th. It will be a government with open contempt for the rule of law; one which suspends parliament, purges internal dissenters, spreads disinformation and threatens the media and the courts when it doesn’t get its way.

The knee-jerk exploitation of the recent London Bridge terrorist attack, with calls for draconian new sentencing laws and the detention of people with “extremist” views, is simply the latest example of this autocratic style. Underneath the bumbling facade, there is an undeniable ruthlessness.

We have heard much talk in this election of a “Remain alliance”. More fundamental still is the need for every voter who cares about liberty and democratic government to use their vote tactically against the very real threat of authoritarian nationalism.

The Tory manifesto contains ominous signs of things to come. The plan is to exploit widespread popular frustration at the political class and “Brexit chaos” in the name of a centralising, authoritarian agenda. In chillingly open-ended terms, the party promises to “look at the broader aspects of our constitution”, which will doubtless include the parliamentary prerogatives so effectively deployed by Speaker John Bercow.

The manifesto proposes to reform judicial review to ensure it is not “abused to conduct politics by another means”, a move which has worrying echoes of the clampdown on judicial independence pursued by Hungary’s right-wing authoritarian leader, Viktor Orban. The Tories were prevented by the Courts from implementing their Brexit deal without parliamentary scrutiny and then later from proroguing parliament to prevent it from stopping “No Deal”. They are now proposing to remove the checks and balances of our constitution, giving the government the power to side-line MP’s from important decisions and reducing judicial scrutiny of government action.

The Tory manifesto further threatens to “update” the Human Rights Act to rebalance rights in favour of “national security and effective government”. No detail is given, but this could refer to control orders, stripping people of their citizenship and deporting them to places that practice torture. It could also mean curbs on the right to protest, which was recently upheld by the courts in the case of Extinction Rebellion. In the event of a No Deal and civil unrest, more repressive measures will no doubt be contemplated.

The rights of travellers are also under attack in the manifesto with powers for the state to seize their property and a pledge to criminalise “intentional trespass”. Inevitably, such powers would also be used by police against peaceful protests and occupations. For the Tories, rights are not universal protections afforded to the vulnerable, but a privilege for the right sort of British citizen; another tool to sow division between “us” and “them”.

A Johnson government will restrict the right to protest (image juliahawkins123)

What is most striking is that the manifesto proposes these sweeping changes with no hint of citizen involvement. There is every indication that Johnson will seek to rule much as he has campaigned, appealing to a mythologised and supposedly homogenous national ‘people’ while side-lining the institutions through which the actual, plural people exercise influence. Britain’s uncodified constitution allows a government with a decent majority to introduce sweeping top-down change.

This power can be used to introduce welcome constitutional reforms (as it was under the first Blair government), but also to abolish countervailing sources of power. In 1985, Thatcher unceremoniously scrapped the Greater London Council in frustration at Ken Livingstone’s left-wing opposition. There is nothing to stop a Tory government frustrated by growing Scottish demands for independence from simply legislating to suspend or even abolish Holyrood. Politically this may seem unthinkable, but then again so did the prorogation of Westminster and much else.

Potential Liberal Democrat and Green voters in constituencies where Labour are the main challenger need to know that their squeamishness about Corbyn risks letting in the most illiberal and anti-democratic government in modern British history. Would-be Labour voters in many southern constituencies, including Esher and Walton, where the Liberal Democrats are gaining on Dominic Raab, should likewise think carefully about how they cast their vote to stop the Tories (see here for an aggregate of tactical voting advice).

Under Jeremy Corbyn there has been much sensationalist talk of “Stalinist” tendencies within the Labour party. Yet the evidence for Tory authoritarianism is tangible and concrete, based on Johnson’s track-record and the contents of the manifesto. The accusations of Labour authoritarianism are based on scraps of Cold War stereotypes. Indeed, the leadership of the Labour party has a distinguished record on civil liberties, challenging the authoritarian anti-terror measures of their own party when in power.

During the Blair and Brown years, the Liberal Democrats worked together with the left of the Labour party to oppose detention without charge, ID cards and other authoritarian measures. A renewal of this co-operation is needed today. While there has been a tendency to use “liberal” exclusively as a pejorative on some parts of the left, this is unfortunate. At its best, liberalism is about the rights of the individual and constraints on government. A defence of the best of liberal values can provide a rallying cry for defeating Johnson.

In addition to the final say on Brexit, there is much for democrats to welcome in the Labour manifesto which promises reform of the House of Lords, local empowerment and a crack-down on dark money and corporate lobbying. While it offers no explicit concession to the historic Liberal Democratic demand for proportional representation, it promises a “constitutional convention” where such issues can be discussed by citizens.

Priti Patel is a co-author of “Britannia Unchained” (image: UK in India)

The party plans to radically democratise the franchise, ensuring automatic voter registration and giving the vote to over 16’s and full UK residents. In sharp contrast, the Tories are borrowing from the Republican playbook with plans for voter ID laws (reducing participation by the poor and minorities) and a proposal to redraw constituency boundaries in partisan ways. To conflate the Labour and Tory leaderships with the loose language of “populism” obscures these fundamental differences in their approach to power.

Those currently in charge of the Conservative party represent a radical right-wing fringe who want to restructure society according to fundamentalist free market doctrines. They plan to hand the NHS and other key services to the corporate sector and slash consumer and workers’ rights. Nowhere does it say this explicitly in the manifesto. But then, neither did the same people say they want a Hard Brexit (let alone No Deal) when running the Leave campaign.

The fundamentalist clique around Johnson know that the programme they have planned could never secure the consent of a political majority in this country. To stand any chance of successfully implementing it, they need to curb popular influence on politics and neutralise any bastions of opposition. No democrat in good conscience can let this happen.

Guy Aitchison is a Lecturer in Politics and International Studies at Loughborough [email protected]

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