The Man in the High Castle: How to Evict the Conservatives from their Nationalist Redoubt
While Boris Johnson broke all the rules in the 2019 General Election, his opponents must create new networks to bring him to book.
In this General Election, the Conservative Party did not conduct a traditional campaign. Instead, its actions had the characteristics of a group of politicians under siege.
Called to give interviews, they instead retreated behind their castle walls – built for them with passionate aggression by several of the country’s biggest newspapers – or within the nearest available refrigerator.
Asked to explain scandals, they chose to use senior reporters as human shields. Whilst their opponents fought a spirited contest on the ground, committing thousands of volunteers to knock on doors for them, the Conservatives instead conducted an onslaught through the air, sending a flurry of false advertising into the ether.
And it worked, all of it.
The effect of the Conservatives’ landslide victory is to validate everything done by the winner. Boris Johnson can now claim that he was justified in evading scrutiny before a television audience and to publish misleading campaign materials. Dominic Raab, having retained his seat, can reflect upon the lack of consequence for his months of untruths. Priti Patel can feel righteous in her use of inflammatory language over immigration. Jacob Rees-Mogg can shrug off his comments on Grenfell.
This win is far more significant than a mere election result. It was achieved through the Conservatives’ constant and deliberate detonation of social and democratic norms and they may now feel that this represents a blueprint for future electoral success. They may be right.
what the papers don’t say
Outside, their opponents lean against those castle walls, broken-hearted and exhausted from weeks of some of the most committed campaigning the country has seen in years. Some wonder about in shock. In their pain and disbelief, they may be in danger of drawing the wrong conclusions: namely, that there is no way back to power.
The Conservatives, despite their huge majority, claimed a lower share of the national vote than the combined vote share of Labour and the Liberal Democrats. This happened, too, at a time when too many voters did not find Jeremy Corbyn or his ability to deliver his policies compelling enough on the doorstep. The challenge for the Labour Party is turnout, but if the Conservatives are to be defeated in the next election, the votes may yet be there. In that respect, the choice of its next leader is absolutely key, as is a media strategy that usefully leads or disrupts the mainstream media news cycles as much as possible.
One silver lining from this particularly grim cloud may be that Brexit is now a settled question.
Progressive parties perhaps underestimated the loathing of the EU among many Leave voters and the desire to respect the referendum result – as legally flawed as that referendum process was – among many who voted Remain. The Conservatives can say for the next couple of years that they are the party who gets the hard things done – but they cannot now campaign upon it at the next general election to such devastating effect as they did this time.
The austerity years were all about what the Tories could not do for the British public and now they will actually have to show and prove what they can do. The Brexit box of trade deal treats will finally be opened and now this Government will have to show the public what is in it. It is sadly more likely that, with the dichotomy of Leave against Remain now dissolved, Boris Johnson will continue to nurture other divisions – particularly between non-immigrants and immigrants and between faiths.
Those progressive parties who, unlike the Conservatives still vaguely respect democratic norms, therefore have a series of challenges. Their job is far harder than that of the Conservatives because they must actively fight the same elements that the Government can wield as a weapon: specifically, English nationalism; a mostly hostile media – often spectacularly so – which is propelled by huge levels of offshore funding; and social media platforms which refuse to penalise the use of false advertising.
They can do so by taking an approach which is both intensely local and firmly international. They can continue to link the deprivation of neighbourhoods directly with the exploitation by multinational companies who are not paying their due.
Crucially, they can work together and decide to step aside for progressive parties in key seats come election time – it was too much to ask voters to figure out these calculations in the 2019 General Election and they struggled without careful direction. This is, it must be said, an area where the Liberal Democrats must look hardest at themselves. The legacy of their disastrous intervention in Kensington will be grim indeed – home to Grenfell and now a Conservative MP. Labour must have its reckoning with the issue of anti-Semitism. If it does, many members and voters, their enthusiasm renewed, will return.
They can build upon the many hours they put into volunteering by continuing to take an aggressively local focus, dispelling the perception that what they mainly care about is London. They have already done so much in that respect. An important step, even as the UK leaves the EU, is to build ever closer links with progressive politicians and civil society organisations in Europe and further afield. Just as the UK right has done a thorough job at networking internationally, so must the UK left.
First, though, they must rest – at least for a little while. It is draining when you have been hammering at the walls of that castle for years. And then they must continue. In the words of The Streets, Let’s push things forward; it’s a tall order, but we’re taller.