Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 12 July 2022

The King is Dead. Long Live the King.


In 2020 the US ended Trump’s presidency at the ballot box, and last week Conservative ministers and MPs finally forced Johnson to say he would go. It is natural that the fall of both should be celebrated, because both brought hitherto unimaginable degradation to their office. Trump and Johnson came from very different backgrounds, and operated within very different constitutional systems, but they had very similar character flaws that meant they were a disaster at leading their countries, and both did everything they could to avoid losing that leadership. Yet as the US is finding out, and as the UK surely soon will, their rule was a symptom of much deeper problems that are harder to remove.

I have described both the US and the UK under this Conservative government as elected plutocracies: regimes where some very wealthy people determine a large proportion of the policy agenda, but where elections still take place. [1] Such regimes still hold the possibility of a transition to more democratic rule through these elections. For example the US under Biden is less of a plutocracy than under Trump. In this sense elected plutocracies are best seen as a continuous struggle between the interests of some of the very rich and a majority of voters. [2]

Part of that struggle is about how fair elections are. One reason why the US and (currently) the UK are elected plutocracies, but most of Europe is not, is that both have electoral systems that favour the political right, which in turn is where the power of the wealthy is greatest. In both countries social conservatives have a more than proportional influence on elections, and as a result the political right focuses as far as it can on these social issues to win votes. This has been true for some time in the US, and as Tim Bale reminds us also in the UK.

The reason for this electoral bias to the right in the US is well described by Shaun Lawson here, and in the UK it is a result of a divided social liberal vote and the concentration of social liberals in the cities. This is one reason why most recent Republican presidents, like Trump, got a minority of votes when they were first elected (because the Electoral College that decides who is president overweights rural America), and the Conservatives win more elections in the UK than Labour.

However the two countries have very different political systems, and the importance and influence of money in US politics has been far greater for some time. While the current Conservative party apes the Republicans in many ways, it is way behind in terms of the erosion of democracy. For example gerrymandering in the US has been routine for some time, as have various measures to discourage black voters who tend to vote Democrat. In contrast the Conservative government has only just begun to do similar things.

Partly for this reason, the constitutional crisis that hit the UK last week was of an order of magnitude less important than the crisis faced by the US. In the US the Republican party under Trump took the fateful step of contesting the result of a presidential election they lost, and Trump even went as far as inciting an invasion of Congress to halt the confirmation of Biden as president. It remains an article of faith among many Republicans that this election was in some way rigged (although every objective examination of these claims has failed to find any evidence), and equally most are in denial about Trump’s attempted coup. Republicans like Liz Cheney, the daughter of a former Vice President and a solidly right wing conservative, was forced out of her position as Chair of the House Republican Conference because she supported a second impeachment of Trump following that coup.

Another related indication that the UK is well behind the US in the threat posed to democracy is the extent to which the political right ignores reality. In the US much of the right does not believe in man made climate change, whereas in the UK that is still a minority position among Conservatives. Gun control is impossible in the US, but effective in the UK. The UK does not have prominent Conservative politicians who flirt with an anti-vax agenda. Yet the UK does have a rabid right wing media that is at least as strong as in the US, and Johnson level lying has become routine among Tory politicians, so perhaps it will be just a matter of time before these things come to the Conservative party.

Disputing the results of an election your side lost based on no evidence whatsoever should mean most voters will never vote for you again. The reason is straightforward. If every time you lose an election you not only call the result rigged but also support attempts to overturn the result, voters can no longer trust democracy in your hands. If they vote you in, they may never get the chance to vote you out. Unfortunately it seems that voters are also in denial about what Trump’s coup and most Republicans failure to condemn it means for the United States. This denial is encouraged by much of the media, which raises impartiality between the two political parties above both reality and the future of US democracy.

The problem has been intensified by the inability of Biden and the apparent Democratic majorities in the House and Senate to do anything in response. It has long been the case that slim paper majorities in Congress for the Democrats do not translate to actual majorities in practice. Even before the energy cost crisis it seemed likely that the Republicans would take control of both the House and Senate in the midterm elections. Meanwhile Republican controlled States that are critical to winning the Electoral College have been dialling up the gerrymandering and vote exclusion.

If this situation didn’t seem bad enough, we also have a radicalised right wing Supreme Court using its majority to make overtly political decisions. While allowing Republican States to ban abortion has rightly got most attention, the court has also ended the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) power to regulate carbon emissions. More worrying still for US democracy is what this unelected Court may do in the near future. The six Republicans on the Supreme Court have announced that one of the first cases they’ll decide next year is whether States can overrule the choice of voters in who makes up their share of the Electoral College. If they do, it means a Republican is sure to be selected as the President in 2024. If you still think this is all implausible, here are some headlines that might help, and please tell me which one cannot happen.

In the United States, therefore, the Republican party is very close to winning the war between the plutocrats that back them and democracy. If this happens the implications beyond the US itself are immense. How, for example, can the world fight global warming when the second biggest producer of CO2 emissions has a government in denial about man made climate change?

In this context our own problems in the United Kingdom seem minor, but they remain very similar. The boy who wanted to be world king may no longer be our Prime Minister, but the party that chose him in full knowledge of who he was and how poor a Prime Minister he would be remains the same. It is the Conservative party, not Johnson, that voted through the effective exclusion of poorer parts of the population from voting, voted to make demonstrations illegal and ended the independence from government of the body that runs elections. It was a majority of the Conservative party, not Johnson, who decided just over a month ago that someone who breaks his own laws can continue as a law maker. While Johnson may have institutionalised plutocracy by empowering bodies made up of major donors like the Leaders Group and the Advisory Board with direct access to ministers, the financial advantages of keeping them in place will almost certainly mean they survive his passing. Making Brexit an article of faith has divorced the Conservative party from reality, as the competition among leadership candidates about who can promise the biggest tax cuts clearly shows.

The reality is that even if more honest and democratic voices still existed within the Conservative party, their chances of becoming its leader would be virtually zero. Among MPs a combination of little-Englanders, ego-libertarians and neoliberal nutters form a majority. Furthermore it is party members that make the final choice of who will become our Prime Minister, and it is among those members that the influence of the plutocracy through the right wing press is at its strongest, a press that lauded Johnson to the end and beyond. [3] In addition (but not independently), it is among these members that you will find those that still keep the Brexit faith. The necessity of tax cuts has become an article of faith among Conservatives just as it has among Republicans. Tax cuts when the NHS is on its knees is the last thing we can afford in the UK.

Nor should the current state of the UK polls provide reassurance that things are bound to change after the next general election. Labour’s poll lead may reflect to a considerable extent the unpopularity of Johnson and the current cost of living crisis. Whoever the Conservatives chose to be Prime Minister, the media will give them a honeymoon, and a late 2024 election will almost certainly see better economic news than 2022/3, an improvement that they and their media backers will claim is down to their leadership. Although some form of cooperation between opposition parties is likely, it will be far from complete and there remain plenty of voters who don’t understand the need to vote tactically under a FPTP system.

Is there hope for democracy in the UK and the US? In the UK the immediate prospects are grim but a defeat for the right in the next general election is possible, although far from assured. [4] In the US the situation is bleaker, but it is worth noting that in the recent past it has often been the hubris of their leaders that has led the right to stumble. Trump’s attitude to Covid helped bring him down, particularly when he caught it himself. In the UK it was Johnson’s partying in No.10, illegal under his own anti-Covid rules, that turned many voters against him. The best hope we have is that the Supreme Court, by flexing its power before the midterms, will help mobilise liberal and uncommitted voters, and lift denial about the threat to democracy from their eyes.

[1] If you don’t believe me for the UK, consider the current complete absence of a policy on Covid.

[2] It might be objected that in most democracies corporations and businesses hold considerable political power. One way of describing neoliberalism is government in the interests of corporations and business in general. But this is very different from a plutocracy. In a plutocracy, a select number of particularly wealthy individuals hold considerable power, and this power may be exercised against the interests of corporations and business. Brexit is the clearest example of that happening.

[3] It is no coincidence that these papers like to show Penny Mordaunt, initially popular among Tory members, in a swimming costume.

[4] History suggests the Conservative tactic of replacing an unpopular leader before the next election is usually successful in terms of winning that election.

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