Immediately after the Conservatives achieved their unexpected but slight majority of 12 seats, they began to plan how they could increase it in 2020. Aware that their reputation as the political wing of the privileged had cost them votes, they framed themselves as the “workers’ party” and reappropriated the “One Nation” mantle claimed by Ed Miliband. They introduced a “national living wage” (albeit one that did not compensate for the hastily reversed cuts to tax credits) as well as an apprenticeship levy on business.
But this repositioning is only part of the Tories’ attempt to strengthen their standing. Free from the Liberal Democrats, they have proposed a battery of measures to weaken the opposition and to reduce executive accountability, leaving MPs, including some of their own, increasingly disconcerted.
The defeat of tax credit cuts in the House of Lords provided George Osborne with the political cover he needed to retreat. Peers fulfilled their constitutional duty to act as a check on the heavily whipped Commons (just two Tory MPs, David Davis and Stephen McPartland, voted against the plans). Yet, in revenge, the government is expected to propose banning the Lords from vetoing secondary legislation, such as the tax credit cuts. “To respond to government difficulties by reducing the power of parliament is not where I have stood all my political life and certainly not where we stood in opposition,” the Conservative peer Ralph Lucas told me. “The executive has quite enough power.” When I spoke to Davis, a former shadow home secretary, he warned: “If Labour have got an ounce of sense it will be very difficult for the government to get that through. I would think at least a dozen people on my side would be against that.”
Osborne’s recent Spending Review included a measure so politically motivated that he thought it unfit to mention in his statement. The Treasury green book revealed that “Short money”, the public funding provided to opposition parties to employ staff and meet office costs, would be cut by 19 per cent. The saving to the state is trivial (0.001 per cent of government spending in 2015-16) but the cost to Labour and others is severe. Jeremy Corbyn’s party will lose £1.2m a year, approximately 3 per cent of its annual income.
The Tory MP Jeremy Lefroy told me that the move “should be challenged”, given that “the executive obviously has extremely large resources at its disposal in terms of advice from civil servants and Short funding was always there in order to provide some measure of balance for the opposition parties”. Davis called the measure “foolish” and “arbitrary”.
An even greater financial hit to Labour will be dealt by the Trade Union Bill, which the party forecasts will cost it as much as £5.4m by requiring union members to opt in to donating, rather than being automatically enrolled. The Tories’ unilateral strike broke the convention that funding changes should be agreed on a cross-party basis. Lefroy told me that talks should be reopened between all the parties (“all of whom potentially have problems”) and warned against a system that gives a “huge advantage to one political party or another”. The Conservatives continue to benefit from unlimited donations from a small pool of business supporters.
The Labour Party that will fight the next election will not only be poorer, but also smaller. The Tories’ decision to redraw the constituency boundaries based on the new system of individual electoral registration disproportionately affects the opposition. Labour-leaning voters, such as students and private renters, are least likely to be on the register and local councils have had little time to sign them up. Consequently, a majority of the 50 MPs likely to be removed under plans to cut the size of the Commons to 600 are expected to be Labour members. Davis warned this would further strengthen the executive by “reducing the number of backbenchers while keeping the same number of ministers”. A Tory MP told me that those Conservatives who lost their seats would be appeased with peerages.
It is not only within parliament that the government is seeking to limit accountability. Ministers are expected to weaken the Freedom of Information Act by introducing new exemptions and charging for requests. “I’m unsurprised that both [Tony] Blair and this government viewed it as an inconvenience,” Davis told me. “The trouble is, they’re forgetting who their bosses are.”
The Lobbying Act, or “gagging bill”, has reduced the maximum amount that voluntary groups and trade unions can spend on political campaigning in the period before a general election by 60 per cent.
The ease with which the Tories have been or will be able to pass most of these measures reflects the existing defects of British democracy. The UK’s unwritten constitution, its centralised state and its non-separation of powers allow a government with a Commons majority frequently to rule unchecked. More than ever, many in Labour regret not introducing greater protections during their time in office. Having achieved their first majority in 23 years, the Conservatives are not committing the same error of inaction.
There is no worse moment for Labour to be divided. Even victory in the Oldham West by-election did not bring unity; some argued that the result was achieved through Corbyn’s leadership, while others contended that it was in spite of it. The boundary changes may yet inflict a double wound by igniting a series of divisive deselections. Opposition MPs lament that too many in the party seem happiest fighting each other. As the Tories’ machinations show, Labour may yet emerge from its internecine struggles to discover that the 2020 election is over before it has even begun.
This article appears in the 09 Dec 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The clash of empires