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The UK Has Been Captured by Conservative England

The country is experiencing the tyranny of a Conservative minority, argues TJ Coles

Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the Euro 2020 semi-final on 7 July 2021. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA

The UK Has Been Captured byConservative England

As Westminster waits on a no-confidence vote from Tory MPs, TJ Coles says the country is experiencing the tyranny of a Conservative minority

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The UK has a 68 million-strong population, yet its political path is being forged by the Conservative Party, that struggles to win 14 million votes.

It has been claimed that the UK has taken a rightward turn in recent years, but it would be more accurate to say that England has turned to the right, while the home nations – and even a few English regions – have clung on to progressive politics.

Indeed, although Wales voted to leave the European Union in 2016, it returned a Labour majority at the 2019 General Election, followed by a Labour majority at the 2021 Senedd Election. Meanwhile, Scotland consistently votes for the centre-left Scottish National Party (SNP), and Northern Ireland recently elected the social democratic party, Sinn Féin.

These parties stand well to the left of the ruling Conservative Westminster Government and would not be out of place alongside Europe’s social democracies.

It is England, therefore, that is dragging down the progressive countries of the UK. Politico’s poll of polls, a tool that collates all the current surveys of domestic voting intention, suggests that if we add up the support for left and centre-left parties in the UK (the poll excludes Sinn Féin and includes the Liberal Democrats), progressive parties have 62% of the potential vote share.

Labour stands on 40%, the Lib Dems 12%, the Greens 5%, the SNP 4%, and Plaid Cymru 1%. The right, by comparison, has just 38%: the Conservatives 33%, Reform 4%, and UKIP 1%.

The England Brexit Psycho-Drama

In 2010 and 2015 respectively, between 10 and 11 million Brits voted Conservative – not enough to give the party a majority in the former, but just enough to get it over the line in the latter.

As a result, successive Conservative-led governments adopted the policy of permanent austerity – from which Boris Johnson has distanced himself rhetorically, while (COVID aside) he still continues to carry out.

Concurrently, the Conservatives have slowly stolen the clothes of hard-right anti-EU provocateur Nigel Farage – who caused the Tories numerous headaches after 2010.

Fearing that the right-wing vote would be split at the 2015 General Election, David Cameron promised to hold the EU Referendum if he emerged victorious – settling the issue once and for all, he hoped, with Remain on the winning side.

Three years after the referendum, with Britain still in the EU and Parliament in paralysis, Brexit became a religion for a significant number of English voters.

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By mid-2019, a majority of Conservative Party members said that they would rather see the party destroyed than lose Brexit. In order to retain these constituents, Johnson is now a political clone of Farage – waging a culture war against immigrants and liberals, trans people, students and standards of decency in public life.

Given the media’s focus on the Westminster psycho-drama, you could be forgiven for thinking that this state of affairs pervades throughout the UK. It does not.

Founded in 1905, the name of the secular party Sinn Féin translates from Irish-Gaelic to English as “Ourselves”. The party operates in two countries. It is a minority in the Republic of Ireland’s legislature (the Oireachtas) with 37 seats in the 160-member lower house (Dáil Éireann) and five out of the 60 seats in the upper house (Seanad Éireann, not including a recent resignation).

Sinn Féin seeks Northern Ireland’s reunification with the Republic of Ireland and – as such – it cannot be compared with too much precision to other UK political parties.

Sinn Féin recently won the plurality in the Northern Ireland Assembly (27 seats out of 90) and abstains from its seven out of potential 18 Northern Ireland constituency seats in the House of Commons.

However, many Sinn Féin supporters vote for the party’s left-wing social policies, not necessarily for reunification. The party’s manifesto pledges include injecting money into the health service, tackling the cost of living crisis by reducing consumer costs, building 100,000 homes over the next 15 years to tackle the affordability crisis, banning conversion therapy, and introducing a Bill of Rights.

The last several years in opposition have made Sinn Féin’s legislative victories all the more impressive. In 2018, it passed a bill in the Irish Dáil to increase the number of social and affordable houses. In 2021, a non-binding private members’ bill calling for 20,000 social homes a year to be constructed also passed. Similarly, in that year, a student renters’ bill enjoyed success. The Financial Times reports that the party’s focus on housing has led to its increase in support. It now leads the opposition in the Republic and is the leading party in Northern Ireland, though negotiations are still ongoing about the resumption of the Assembly after May’s election.

From Holyrood to Cardiff

The first elections to the Scottish Parliament took place in 1999, with Labour winning 53 seats and the SNP leading the opposition. In 2007, the pro-independence party beat Labour by one seat, and it has been the leading party in Scottish parliamentary elections ever since.

In 2016, Scots voted overwhelmingly for the UK to remain part of the EU – 62 to 38% – and as England has lurched to the right, Scotland has travelled in the opposite political direction.

Branded as the ‘Brexit election’, the SNP consolidated its support in 2019 – winning 48 of the available 59 House of Commons seats in the country – an increase of 13 from 2017.

Fearing a hard Brexit under Johnson, the SNP was given a significant mandate in Westminster and in Holyrood through subsequent Scottish elections.

Today, 16-year-olds can vote in Scotland – something for which Westminster refuses to legislate. In addition, anyone resident in Scotland, including refugees, can register to vote. By late-2021, more than 170,000 EU and other foreign nationals were registered to vote in the Scottish Parliamentary and local elections.

In contrast, Tory England is increasingly restricting the franchise, marginalising those already on the peripheries of the democratic system.

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Echoing their Scottish counterparts, in 2020 the Welsh voted to expand the franchise to younger age groups.

The Senedd Cymru (Welsh Parliament, previously the National Assembly) is a unicameral assembly that has 60 seats and was established in 1999. Since its founding, the Welsh Labour Party has dominated, with consistently a quarter-to-one-third of the vote in constituency elections.

In the 2021 Senedd elections, Labour entrenched its support – gaining one seat and teetering on the edge of an overall majority, an impressive feat in both the Scottish and Welsh parliaments, by virtue of their proportional voting systems. The majority of people in Wales want Johnson to resign as Prime Minister, in line with the rest of the UK.

As polls and election results consistently show, the UK as a whole leans towards the centre-left – something that consistently converts to majorities for progressive parties outside Westminster.

Yet, the majority of people – and certainly those in the home nations – are forced to reckon with seemingly perpetual Tory rule, with its accompanying Brexit diversions and regressive economic policies.

Nevertheless, there is some reason for hope. There is a broad coalition capable of beating the Conservatives at the next election – if those involved can figure out a strategy for victory.

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