Today
Wed 2 December 2020

Musa Okwonga examines why the myth of the Conservative Party’s competence persists and how those meant to be holding Boris Johnson to account are complicit in its belief.


By now, that tweet of David Cameron is a long-running joke – the one in which, just prior to the 2015 General Election, he claimed that “Britain faces a simple and inescapable choice – stability and strong Government with me, or chaos with Ed Miliband”.

Looking at the past few years of British politics, no one could seriously suggest that the political scene resembles any kind of stability. The real surprise is that the Conservative Party continues to benefit from the greatest of all privileges during election season: the assumption that it is competent. But more of that, and of dead cats, a little later. First, let’s go back to 2015.

At the time, the Conservatives were regarded as competent by a judge no less accomplished than the Financial Times, which accused the Labour Party’s then leader, Ed Miliband, of being “preoccupied with inequality”. Miliband’s policies may not have been the most imaginative, but subsequent events seem to have proved him right.

The ravages of David Cameron’s austerity have been so severe that they have drawn the attention of the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, who referred to poverty in the UK as “systemic” and tragic”. In the same editorial, the Financial Times noted the social and economic damage risked by the UK’s departure from the EU – a prospect which Miliband, in his refusal to hold a referendum, chose not to entertain. Yet, Cameron was still given the benefit of the doubt.

We are again approaching a general election and we are in a moment – brilliantly analysed by the British historian Dr Charlotte Lydia Riley – when so many political mistakes are being portrayed instead as pieces of strategic genius. But they are merely “dead cats”; a brilliant distraction from the real issues at hand. The one thing to add to Riley’s analysis is that this generous interpretation still only seems to apply to the Conservative Government and not its opposition.

When a scandal breaks within the Labour Party, it is generally given the scrutiny that we should expect from all who seek to hold the highest office. Part of this can be attributed to the right-leaning nature of much of the UK press. There may also be two other factors at play, which we can call “the lopsided centre”.

One of these is an innate bias towards parties in power, whereby commentators presume that, merely because they are in charge, they must ultimately know what they are doing. This instinctive deference to authority seems to be rooted in a desire to cling to a sense of normality – a faith that there are no circumstances in which the electorate will elevate a demagogue to lead them, and that whoever is in power cannot truly mean the hateful rhetoric that comes from their pulpit.

This is the same faith which led many observers to believe that the Republican Party would curb rather than enable Donald Trump’s worst excesses, and even that Trump might become presidential. It is the same faith which sees commentators play down the worrying effects of Boris Johnson’s words about Muslim women, even as those same women warn of the harm he is causing

The second factor is that these commentators are so far detached from the consequences of the Government’s actions that they will ultimately be fine whoever is in office. For them, critiques of Government behaviour take place in the abstract and too often lack the necessary urgency. They react with scorn to research that the Government’s policies may be the cause of widespread misery and even death. They very often belong to the same socio-economic class as the ministers they criticise and cannot believe that someone who looks like them, who was raised in the same environments as them, can really be capable of the outrages that people accuse them of. 

In politics, it sometimes seems as if commentators are afraid to sound the alarm about ruling parties, fearing that, if they do, they will seem hysterical. That fear needs to be lost – and fast.

One of the ways this can be done is by listening to those at the margins, to the type of people who never had the luxury of laughing at Trump’s rise to power. People like this – members of the non-white working class, for example – knew very well who Trump was and how dangerous he could be a full 30 years ago. Of course, people like this have long been excluded from political discourse, since the status quo relies upon their notes of caution being ignored.

But, we see now that they are the early warning systems of history: they are the first people who experience the threats to our civil society and its democratic norms. It is their voices we should be truly heeding and providing with platforms. Not those of the lopsided centre. 


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