There is one critically important area on which the Conservative government, which has been in power since 2010, is performing strongly relative to other countries – vaccine roll-out.
On other measures, the government has turned in a desperately weak performance:
- the UK has the fifth worst COVID death toll in the world – if we had just had an ‘average’ performance of around 200 people dying per million inhabitants, our death toll instead of being over 125,000 would have been around 13,000: over 100,000 UK citizens would still be alive today;
- the UK economy is one of the weakest in the OECD;
- real (inflation-adjusted) median wages are below where they were in 2007 – people are getting poorer over time;
- poverty is now running at over 20 percent; child poverty is even worse – over 30% of children are now living in poverty;
- life expectancy is plateauing – and even declining in the most deprived areas; and
- the nation’s mental health is suffering.
You might think that a record like this would have made the Conservative party unelectable, but the polls consistently show that if there were an election held today, the Conservatives would be likely to win.
Does this mean that the Conservatives are impregnable? Are their electoral prospects entirely divorced from performance? Does it no longer matter what they actually do?
In reality, their position is far more fragile than they would like us to believe:
- they project a facade of power; but
- they have fundamental weaknesses which they are unable to address; so
- they are desperately trying to shore up their position.
The result is a hard but brittle regime whose fortunes could turn very suddenly.
They Project a Facade of Power
The Conservatives greatest hope of retaining power is that they will not be strongly opposed. To reduce the likelihood of effective opposition, they aim to persuade as many people as possible of three things:
- They are the natural party of government – they are so powerful that there is no realistic chance of any other outcome at the next election, so it is not worth opposing them;
- They are performing brilliantly at everything – it is a world-beating performance and it would be risking that high performance to elect any other party;
- The reason people’s lives don’t feel this world-beating success is nothing to do with the government, it is their fault – where ‘they’ can be immigrants, scroungers, remoaners, the EU, sneering metropolitan intellectuals, or indeed any plausible scapegoat.
So we see an extraordinary effort devoted to apparently trivial issues like flying the Union flag over government buildings at all times, refurbishing the Number 10 press room to make it look more imposing, repaints of ‘Brexit jets’ for the Prime Minister, increasing the supply of nuclear weapons, and of course constant use of ‘world beating’ rhetoric. The reason these things are important is that they are powerful symbols and effective distractions from the underlying performance of the government.
But on its own, that will not be enough – not even with widespread media support – to convince most people that everything is going brilliantly. For too many people, the evidence of their own lives says otherwise.
And so the second part of the message is around blame-shifting and divide and rule. The problem is not the government, the message runs, it is ‘them.’
A large part of government messaging is deliberately divisive: the ‘war on woke’; the Festival of Brexit; attacking the Black Lives Matter movement, etc. Even the recent Report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, which concluded that the UK does not suffer from institutional racism, seems to fit this pattern. As the British Medical Journal comments:
“The 30-page section on health in the report claims to undo several decades of irrefutable peer-reviewed research evidence on ethnic disparities, previous governments’ reports, and independent reviews all reaching similar conclusions: ethnic minorities have the worst health outcomes on almost all health parameters. The report’s conclusions, recommendations, and cherry-picked data to support a particular narrative shows why it should have been externally peer-reviewed by independent health experts and scientists. …
This report is a missed opportunity. It lacks the scientific credibility and authority to be used for major policy decisions. Its methodology and language, its lack of scientific expertise, and the well-known opinions of its authors make it more suitable as a political manifesto rather than an authoritative expert report. The new government approach on race, divorced from reality, fails to provide any solutions to ethnic disparities in health. Its attempts to undermine the well-established and evidence-based role of ethnicity on health outcomes will lead to a worsening of systemic inequalities putting more ethnic minority lives at risk.”
Though hard to measure, it seems likely that this attempt to promote division within society along racial, religious and political lines has been at least partially successful.
They have Fundamental Weaknesses they Cannot Address
The most obvious weakness is one we have already touched on: in terms of the things that most profoundly affect the quality of peoples lives, the government is performing extremely poorly. The only way to address this would be a policy reversal which they have no wish to make.
The second weakness is that many points of their agenda are unpopular. This means that when they talk about cutting taxes and reducing services or removing regulations which protect workers’ rights or food standards, or when they aim to move more of the NHS into private hands, they have to present their policies as the opposite of what they really are.
The so-called levelling up agenda is a good example of presenting a policy as its opposite: in reality, the limited funds which are being made available to support this agenda are not being allocated to the areas in most need: they are being allocated to marginal Conservative constituencies. As the Financial Times reported, the bias in allocation is ‘pretty blatant.’ The more they rely on this approach, the greater the risk of being found out.
And the third weakness is numbers. Those who truly support the market fundamentalist agenda are a fraction of one percent of the population; those who do not are over 99%. For the UK, that means that there are a few hundred thousand people trying to impose this agenda on the rest of the population, who collectively number 67 million.
Of course, they are disproportionately wealthy, which gives disproportionate influence.
As the chart shows, they have been taking an ever-larger slice of the national pie since the early 1980s, but even so, the bottom 99% collectively have more. The combined wealth of the top 1% is only (!) 22% of the nation’s total wealth – the other 78% of the wealth lies with the bottom 99%. They are outnumbered and outgunned.
They are Desperately Trying to Shore Up their Position
For these reasons, the government is working hard to remove the checks and balances which 99% of the population might use to retard the progress of the market fundamentalist agenda. To understand the diagram fully, read this article.
Fortunately, they are finding this harder than they expected – both the courts and public opinion have forced U-turns. The Good Law Project was able to overturn the illegal proroguing of Parliament and also to prevent the government from drawing a veil over its highly suspicious procurement activities during the COVID pandemic. As we wrote recently, the profoundly undemocratic Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill has been shelved (temporarily at least) because of the strength of public feeling.
But the overall picture is clear: the government would like to increase their freedom of action and remove all forms of scrutiny.
The Result is a Hard But Brittle Regime
Even if they succeed in this, their position remains fragile. That fraction of 1% of the population is completely dependent on the remaining 99%+.
Typically, they do not grow their own food. They do not make their own clothes and shoes. They do not build and maintain their own houses. They probably do not even clean them. They do not teach their own children. Even if they drive their own cars – which many do not – they do not service them. Their lives are comfortable and pleasant only because of the support they receive from the 99%.
In international politics, countries have innovated in the way they apply sanctions. 20 years ago, it was common to apply sanctions to the country as a whole – but the result was that the elite continued to prosper while the pain was felt by the mass of the population. The modern approach is to target sanctions at the members of the offending elite: freezing their bank balances, seizing their overseas assets, restricting their ability to travel, and so on.
In national politics, there has been far less innovation. Organisers still arrange marches where hundreds of thousands or even millions take to the streets in peaceful protest – like the anti-Brexit marches – only to be ignored by the government.
The market fundamentalist agenda can only be implemented with the complicity of the 99%, and maintaining that complicity while continuing to impoverish the mass of the population will become increasingly difficult. As more people become aware of the facts, and find more innovative ways both of sharing them with others and of imposing sanctions on those who seek to destroy our democracy and unwind our social contract, it will become impossible to hold the regime together.
There is an interesting historical precedent – which gave us the verb ‘to boycott.’
As Wikipedia explains, Captain Charles Boycott was a land agent employed by Lord Erne, a landowner in County Mayo, Ireland. In 1880, as part of its campaign for the Three Fs (fair rent, fixity of tenure, and free sale) and specifically in resistance to proposed evictions on the estate, the Irish National Land League encouraged Boycott’s employees (including the seasonal workers required to harvest the crops on Lord Erne’s estate) to withdraw their labour, and began a campaign of isolation against Boycott in the local community. This campaign included shops in nearby Ballinrobe refusing to serve him, and the withdrawal of services.
The campaign against Boycott became a cause célèbre in the British press after he wrote a letter to The Times. Fifty Orangemen from County Cavan and County Monaghan travelled to Lord Erne’s estate to harvest the crops, while a regiment of the 19th Royal Hussars and more than 1,000 men of the Royal Irish Constabulary were deployed to protect the harvesters. The episode was estimated to have cost the British government and others at least £10,000 to harvest about £500 worth of crops.
More recently, and on a much smaller scale, a publican in Rishi Sunak’s constituency has banned him for life as a protest against his vote to deny free school meals to the poorest children during the holidays. On its own, this is unlikely to change government policy, but a well-designed and large scale boycott would make a real difference.
Predicting the tipping point is impossible. Seeing the inherent weaknesses and contradictions in the government’s position is not.
If this matters to you, please do sign-up and join the 99% Organisation.