The Tories Plan An Assault On Progressive Britain. The left Must Be Prepared

‘Boris Johnson’s threat to abolish the BBC’s licence fee is an unapologetic attempt to coerce more favourable coverage, while menacing progressive cultural output.’ Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA


For the Tory right, Brexit was not simply a means to reconfigure the UK’s relationship with the European Union, as it was for millions of voters: it was a blunt instrument to remodel society in its own image. This grand national project was rudely interrupted when Labour deprived the Conservatives of a majority in 2017: it will now be renewed with vigour. Underpinning it is both triumphalism and insecurity.

Triumphalism, because Labour has been subjected to a devastating defeat, leaving it shattered and demoralised, stripped of seats it has held for decades; and because it has no plausible leader who can confidently presume to take the party to victory in 2024. Insecurity, because support for Labour among younger voters is at an unprecedented high, while for the Tories it’s at an unparalleled low; because the right knows Labour’s economic policies are popular, driving its 2017 surge and provoking the only doubts Tory strategists had about victory this time around; and because it is keenly aware that a left-led Labour party came horrifyingly close to forming a government just two and a half years ago, falling short by just 2,227 votes in seven constituencies. That near-death experience, so far as they are concerned, must never be repeated.

The electoral map is already rigged in favour of the Tories: it took on average just 38,264 votes to elect a Tory MP, compared to 50,835 per Labour MP. That advantage will now be entrenched. The Tories’ planned redrawing of constituency boundaries would have handed them a majority of 104 if implemented in 2019, up from 80 as it stands. Borrowing from the Republican right, the introduction of voter ID – a supposed solution to the nearly nonexistent problem of voter fraud – will hit poorer Labour-leaning voters the most.

An authoritarian power grab beckons. On page 48 of their manifesto, the Tories commit to examining “the broader aspects of our constitution”, including “the relationship between the government, parliament and the courts”, as well as an “update” of the Human Rights Act and administrative law.

Expect assaults on perceived bastions of progressive Britain, too. The Tories have pledged to ban all-out rail strikes: expect a weakening of already hobbled unions. As Times Higher Education puts it, the Conservative right “would relish a full-on, US-style culture war against universities over their supposed ‘leftwing bias’”; prepare then, too, for an offensive against progressive thought in higher education. Popular culture will be another battleground. Boris Johnson’s threat to abolish the BBC licence fee is an unapologetic attempt to coerce more favourable coverage, while menacing progressive cultural output. The Tories’ threat to review the broadcasting charter of Channel 4 News and their boycott of Radio 4’s Today programme are indicative of a party intolerant of even mild press scrutiny.

Much of the press already behaves as the Tories’ de facto campaigning wing: new research reveals a farcical disparity between positive election coverage of the government and off-the-charts negative reporting of Labour. Expect the press to accelerate its cheerleading for the government while savaging its opponents. Whoever becomes Labour leader will come under remorseless pressure from within the party, the rightwing media and the Tories to bury “Corbynism”. That will not just involve demands for purges but also the abandonment of domestic policies and a pivot rightwards on social issues. Nothing will ever be enough: as David Cameron discovered with the Tory Brexiteers, every concession will just make the critics fatter and hungrier.

Johnson’s refusal to apologise for his back catalogue of racism and homophobia leaves every bigot feeling that their hatred has the prime ministerial seal of approval. Expect the already cruel victimisation of minorities, ranging from Muslims to trans people, to accelerate. Even some on Labour’s left talk privately of pivoting rightwards on social issues: they should tell us which minority they wish to throw under which bus.

There used to be a demarcation between the “centre right” and the extremes beyond, summed up by Cameron’s description of Ukip as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists, mostly”. Not so today: far-right thug Tommy Robinson reportedly celebrated the Tory electoral win by claiming he was joining the party; Britain First apparently urged its supporters to join to “make Boris Johnson’s leadership more secure”; while racist provocateur Katie Hopkins boasted to Sayeeda Warsi that “it’s OUR party now”. The far-right threat against minorities and the left will heighten: but the latter will be portrayed as a dangerous rabble. The acceptance of that narrative helps explain how, during the election, the alleged assault of two Labour canvassers in their 70s was largely ignored, while the supposed punching of a Tory adviser by a Labour activist, which never happened, attracted widespread publicity.

All of this is bleak, yes: but it’s better to be prepared than to be overwhelmed by the coming deluge. A traumatised left must unite in the face of unprecedented adversity. In Hungary, the centre-right Fidesz party radicalised when in office into an authoritarian rightwing extremist administration that has destroyed the substance of democracy while maintaining its pretence. It is not inevitable the same will happen here, but it is entirely plausible. Progressives should buckle up: brace, brace.