Salami tactics: slicing back UK democracy

Allan Todd writes: The term ‘salami tactics’ was coined by Matyas Rakosi, the post-war Hungarian communist leader, to describe the way in which, after 1945, bit by bit they sliced off all opposition to their rule. Recent developments in the UK makes it possible to argue that, certainly since 2015, several significant slices have already been taken off British democracy, taking us towards an increasingly authoritarian hard-right state, in which democracy is, at the very least, seriously eroded. Growing concerns about where UK democracy is heading were raised recently in a Byline Times article, warning that Johnson and Cummings are nudging us towards becoming an “elective dictatorship”.

Manipulating elections

The first real sign of the UK’s move in this direction was the 2015 general election. As exposed by a Channel 4 News investigation, it appeared that the Tories had overspent in 33 key marginal seats and that, in 26 of them, this had resulted in Tory holds/wins:

Tory election fraud in GE2015?

After lengthy investigations, the Electoral Commission imposed a record £70,000 fine on the Tories for “multiple offences”. The Electoral Commission also complained about the serious delays in getting necessary documents from Conservative Central Office, and the failure – despite two statutory notices – to include all the required invoices and receipts. The following year, the Crown Prosecution Service, although estimating that £118,124 was either “incorrectly reported or not reported at all”, decided not to prosecute in all but one of the cases under investigation. However, its judgement was hardly a ‘not guilty’ verdict for the Tories:

Although there is evidence to suggest the returns may have been inaccurate, there is insufficient evidence to prove to the criminal standard that any candidate or agent was dishonest. … By omitting any ‘Battle Bus’ costs, the returns may have been inaccurate. However, it is clear agents were told by Conservative Party headquarters that the costs were part of the national campaign…”

The one case they did prosecute, South Thanet, eventually resulted in a guilty verdict but even that MP was allowed to keep his seat.

However, the most disturbing aspect about all this is not the fact that the Tories may have cheated in order to win an election: the really worrying thing is that not a single ‘opposition’ party said a single word in defence of democracy. While Labour, being the largest party, is perhaps most to blame, the role played by the Green Party was equally worrying for those at all bothered about democracy.

As regards the Green Party’s total lack of reaction, I can speak from personal experience. In 2016, I was a Green Party member, and had stood as the Green Party candidate in Copeland in the previous year’s general election. So, at their 2016 Spring Conference, I moved an Emergency Motion calling for the party to mount campaigns in all the suspect seats, calling for by-elections. This was overwhelmingly passed but the leadership neither said nor did a single thing.

So UK democracy began to die – without even a whimper from the opposition. No wonder the ‘Leave’ campaigns in 2016 felt able to flout laws about donations, or that the Tories felt able to breach electoral law again in GE2017 – this time (as exposed yet again by Channel 4 News), by the illegal use of call centres to make ‘cold calls’ to specific voters in key marginal seats, in order to identify potential supporters.

It seems a clear pattern of potential illegal behaviour in UK elections is beginning to emerge. But, of course, there’s more!

Russian interference and corruption

As the long-delayed – and hugely-redacted – Russia Report finally shows, the Tories have deliberately chosen not to investigate claims that Russia may have interfered in the 2016 EU Referendum, in order to help achieve a victory for Brexit supporters. In fact, the report shows that since 2014, three successive Tory prime ministers have turned a blind eye to possible Russian interference, including GE2015, as well as the 2016 EU referendum. Some cynics have said this may have something to do with the close ties between leading Tories and obscenely wealthy Russian oligarchs who give so generously to Tory Party election funds.

Johnson with some of his Russian oligarch backers

In fact, the largest individual political donor to the Tories is a… Russian oligarch – who donated £1.7m!

Last month, George Monbiot posted a timely warning on Double Down News about the increasing corruption in the UK which, according to research, suggests that the UK is now one of the most corrupt countries in the world.

Most recently, the awarding of contracts during the Covid-19 pandemic to private companies – including to some with close connections to Dominic Cummings and some Tory ministers – suggests things are getting worse rather than better.

This may also explain why, just 10 days before the lockdown, the government allowed the Cheltenham Festival to go ahead. At the time, it was not widely known that Matt Hancock, Health Secretary and MP for Newmarket, had received around £100,000 in donations from those connected to the horse-racing industry. Maybe that was also behind the decision this May to let horse-racing resume, despite the on-going pandemic?

The judiciary and the civil service

Also very worrying for those concerned about democracy is the way that Johnson’s government, from almost the beginning of his taking over as PM, has tried to act illegally and to put pressure on the judiciary and senior civil servants.

Most famously, in August last year – in order to ‘Get Brexit Done’ – Johnson and his hard-right cabal of Cummings and Rees-Mogg decided to lie to the head of state and to prorogue parliament, in order to avoid parliamentary scrutiny of the Brexit agreements in the run-up to the ‘deadline’ for leaving the EU which, at that time, was 31 October 2019. This led to an outcry that Johnson was carrying out a coup and that UK democracy was being undermined.

Protests against Johnson’s attempt to prorogue parliament

This eventually ended up before the Supreme Court which, in September 2019, ruled that his actions were illegal and that they “prevented parliament from carrying out its constitutional role.” The judges’ decision was unanimous. Ominously, Johnson and Cummings very quickly announced possible plans to introduce significant changes to the judiciary – including to the Supreme Court. This was seen in many quarters as ‘revenge’ for the humiliating defeat inflicted on him over his attempts to prorogue parliament.

On top of this, have come Cummings’ and Johnson’s plans to bring down a “hard rain” on the Civil Service – seen by many outsiders as a declaration of war on the current system’s idea of the political neutrality of senior civil servants. Instead, it would appear that Cummings in particular wants to move much closer to the US system of having political appointments in the top civil service posts.

While the early retirement of Mark Sedwill from his post as Cabinet Secretary is seen as connected to his objections to Cummings’ plans to ‘streamline’ the civil service, some have seen these moves as a way of strengthening the PM’s hand in pushing through the Cummings-Johnson agenda. All this comes on top of allegations that Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, has bullied three senior civil servants – and the fact that the inquiry’s results will not be published. Taken together, all these seem to point to the development of ‘strong’ government in the UK.

In the pipeline

Of course, there will be those who argue that much of this can be reversed as soon as the Tories lose a general election. But a wise person would not be holding their breath for such an eventuality.

Apart from the possible loss of MPs from the SNP, if Scotland becomes independent, there are a couple of changes on the way that, taken together, will do much to help ensure almost permanent Tory rule for many years to come:

  • the new boundary changes are likely to cost Labour around 20 seats overall, compared to any losses the Tories might suffer as a result.

  • the introduction of Voter Photo ID.

Coming soon to UK elections

According to many commentators’ experience elsewhere – especially in the US – the introduction of Voter Photo ID tends, in practice, to ‘remove’ large numbers of poor, young and ethnic minority voters from voting booths. In other words, demographics that are more likely not to be Tory voters. The Tories say (with presumably no sense of irony!) that this is to prevent electoral fraud. Last year, out of millions of votes cast, there were only 7 reported cases of individual election fraud.

Compulsory photo voter ID is a red herring policy that could undermine free and fair elections and democracy itself. The government has grossly inflated the risk of electoral fraud as an excuse… In 2017 there was just one conviction for impersonation at an election. Voter ID is likely to damage election turnout and will worst affect those who are already disadvantaged – including young people, older people, disabled, transgender, and BAME communities and homeless people.”

Clare Collier, Advocacy Director of Liberty, The Observer, 13 October 2019

Warnings from Europe

When all these UK developments are put into a wider European context, they become even more worrying, especially if the UK is compared to Hungary and Poland.

In Hungary, Orbán has steadily moved towards the creation of an authoritarian ‘strong’ state (or, as he has called it, an ‘illiberal state’) which, while retaining some of the forms of democracy, has rigged the system in various ways to ensure that his party, Fidesz, has an almost permanent grip on power. In addition to significantly reducing the number of parliamentary seats, there have also been his largely successful attempts to reduce the independence of the judiciary and the press via changes to the constitution. And in order to bolster his national populism, he has made many overtly racist comments – particularly against migrant and Roma communities – in order to appeal to Hungary’s far right parties and fascist groups.

Hungary’s far right Jobbik Party

In Poland, Duda and his Law and Justice Party (PiS) have been acting in similar ways to Orbán in Hungary, in order to dismantle key aspects of democracy. This has included steps to reduce the ability of the opposition to scrutinise legislation, and to control the public media.

Earlier this month, Juan Fernando López Aguilar – a Spanish Socialist MEP – called attention to the way that the Polish government has, since 2015, “…systematically dismantled every trace of separation of powers, freedom of expression and media pluralism.” One of the steps taken by PiS was to introduce sweeping ‘reforms’ to the judiciary; another has been to attempt changes to the electoral system via reducing the independence of the Constitutional Tribunal.

And, as in Hungary, the leaders of PiS openly make racist – and homophobic – comments in order to consolidate support from far right and fascist groups, such as the National-Radical Camp (ONR).

Poland’s National-Radical Camp (ONR)

Resistance

The first important step is to realise that the UK has a big structural and institutional problem – the essentially medieval top-down political model associated with monarchy, combined with the power of the billionaire-owned media and the wealthy oligarchs (Russian and those much closer to home).

To protect what’s left of UK democracy, we need to do more than resist current attempts to erode democracy even further: we need to radically change the UK’s political system as a whole. Fortunately, more people are now beginning to see the dangers to UK democracy posed by Cummings and Johnson, and their hard-right Tory cabal. In a video made for Double Down News last December, George Monbiot called attention to the way that the oligarchs are “gaming democracy” – including playing a leading role in Labour’s defeat in GE2019.

He pointed out how, by lying, ‘fake news’ and cheating, and through their control of the media – and their misuse of social media – they have been successful in either persuading the poor to vote for parties that push the interests of the very rich or creating a sense of powerlessness, thus leading to de-politicisation.

More importantly, he pointed out how it is possible to resist all this, calling for what he terms “political rewilding.” This would include doing what Finland has been doing for over five years: introducing a programme of digital literacy. A recent study shows Finland now has the highest resistance to the fake news and conspiracy theories that abound on social media. In the US, the Democratic Party has produced a guide for confronting online lies, and for putting pressure on social media platforms to take such items down.

But we are going to need more than a digital ‘coalition against fake news’. There will need to be peaceful civil resistance on the streets and the #BlackLivesMatter protests are a pointer to what is needed. But, as events in the US have shown, it won’t be an easy struggle.

Federal troops in Portland, USA – a ‘populist’ paramilitary state?

As has been noted above – and by many commentators recently – there are clear links between hard-right ‘populist’ politicians and overtly far right groups. An interesting analysis of these links, which focuses mainly on the US, is provided by Henry A. Geroux.

As Covid-19 austerity begins to be imposed in the UK, there will be another surge in xenophobia; even before the pandemic the Tory manifesto for GE2019 targeted Roma people. This should not have been a surprise – we now have a PM who, when it suits him (usually before a referendum or an election) is overtly racist, in order to stoke up his far-right base. With Hungary and Poland to act as warnings, it would be a huge mistake to ally fears with ideas of ‘British exceptionalism.’

If we think democracy is worth having, it’s worth fighting for!

Or it will disappear – not overnight, in some outright fascist take-over, but more slowly, slice by salami slice!


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