Britain’s Conservatives Are Eroding Democracy

With recent legislation, the Tories have restricted immigration, disenfranchised voters, and enhanced police powers. The Labour Party leadership needs to do something to stop this turn in British politics.

British prime minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street to attend the weekly Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, May 18, 2022. (Dan Kitwood / Getty Images)

The year has not reached its halfway mark, yet the UK government has already pushed through a raft of repressive laws, with more on the way. The changes amount to an attack on UK democracy and the ability of the courts to hold the government to account. Although grassroots campaigns came together to resist the changes, in the absence of a coordinated, official opposition resisting in the name of democracy, they were not able to succeed.

A Raft of Repressive Legislation

The changes passed by the Conservative government obstruct the principal avenues for holding it to account for its actions. At the beginning of last month, the Elections Act 2022 introduced ID checks on voters. The act, which could potentially disenfranchise millions, will strip the Electoral Commission, the body responsible for ensuring UK elections are lawful, of its independence by allowing the government to set its terms and priorities.

This is not the only piece of antidemocratic legislation the Tories were able to pass last month. The Judicial Review and Courts Act 2022 limits the power of the courts to remedy unlawful government action on the part of the executive. Additionally, the government has further criminalized political protests via the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. This legislation provides the police with new powers to intervene in protests where the noise caused by them would cause “significant disruption.”

Citizenship, as well as the legal rights of refugees and asylum seekers, have also come under attack by Boris Johnson’s government. These moves are, of course, part of a Europe-wide trend in which conservative governments across the continent have attempted to draw legitimacy by introducing ever more oppressive border policies. Earlier last month, the Tories also passed the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, which grants the government the ability to strip the citizenship of individuals without their prior notice. Included within the compendium of powers the act grants is the right of the UK Border Force to turn individuals away from the country while at sea. Notably, the act shifts the UK away from its international legal commitments to the Refugee Convention.

Of course, previous British governments have led attacks on democracy; for example, legislating for mass state surveillance and introducing indefinite detention of foreign nationals suspected of engaging in terrorism-related activities. However, this particular Tory government and its legislation have systematically targeted some of the few remaining avenues through which political dissent can find meaningful expression. With the exception of introducing voter ID, the changes were not explicitly referred to in the 2019 Conservative manifesto. As a result, the thin retort that the government’s majority means it has a “democratic mandate” to undermine democratic rights doesn’t apply in this context.

Systematic assaults on trade unions by successive UK governments, and widespread mistrust in the British media, have forced the courts and protests to play a central role in recent years in resisting some of the government’s more outlandish attempts to increase its own power. For example, the Home Office recently announced it was abandoning a policy authorizing the UK Border Force to forcibly redirect dinghies carrying people back to France following a legal challenge brought by grassroots organizations and NGOs.

While the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 ultimately passed, grassroots protests such as “Kill the Bill” helped to galvanize pockets of opposition in the House of Lords, which very nearly succeeded in passing important amendments curtailing the most oppressive elements of the law. It is therefore clear that Tories are focusing on weakening some of the few mechanisms seeking to hold them to account.

This new stage in democratic decay in the UK is defined not only by the targeting of basic democratic infrastructure but the manner in which it has been targeted. The Tories have implemented these changes with minimum public deliberation (even taking into account the impact of the pandemic and war in Ukraine). This is partly due to “reform overload”: Johnson has sought to pass a huge volume of controversial legislation simultaneously and at great speed. Presumably, the government feels that proceeding in this way will leave Parliament and the public less time to question such legislation.

Coinciding with this reform overload has been a series of legal violations, both trivial and serious. Their effect, nevertheless, has been to distract from the government’s legislative agenda. This lawbreaking has not only taken the form of “Partygate,” in which Government officials, including the prime minister and chancellor of the exchequer, repeatedly broke the rules they themselves had passed into law to manage the pandemic.

More serious acts of lawbreaking have been commonplace for years. For example, the Conservative Party was fined by the Electoral Commission for breaking party donation rules — the same Electoral Commission which will be brought under government control. The former health secretary Matt Hancock was found to have acted unlawfully for failing to declare billions of pounds of public money spent on “VIP” contracts to obtain pandemic-related health equipment from associates of the Conservative Party. The home secretary, Priti Patel, has recently admitted to having acted unlawfully by allowing the Home Office to seize the phones of refugees.

The Need for a Coordinated Opposition

We should be careful to avoid the view that the official opposition’s inability to stop these antidemocratic reforms is merely due to actions by the government. The leadership of the Labour Party appears to be buying into exactly the kind of political framing that is aiding the Tories. Rather than building a vocal coalition around an agenda of explicitly protecting democracy, the Labour leadership has either focused heavily on the personal drama of Tory politicians or tried to compete with the government in taking up the mantle of being the party of law and order.

This is precisely the framing that is helping to fuel democracy-dissolving legislation such as the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. In the Prime Minister’s Questions just before the government pushed its key legislation through the final stages, Keir Starmer did not mention the legislation once.

It is hard to understand the rationale underpinning the government’s policies. The destruction of democratic rights in the UK was hardly an issue voters were calling for in the lead-up to the 2019 election, and it is not clear why a broad coalition against the changes could not be mustered even in Westminster. While the Labour Party’s leadership has not been prepared to name the current UK government’s approach to governance for what it is — a sustained and systematic attack on British democracy — cross-party committees in Parliament have been willing to go further than the official opposition and criticize the government for its antidemocratic practices.

The opponents of the government’s last reforms will barely have had time to take a breath between the last stack of legislation passed and the next round of speedy antidemocratic reform that the Tories plan to place on British statute books. In this month’s Queen’s Speech, the UK government announced plans to overhaul the Human Rights Act 1998, the UK’s flagship human rights legislation, and introduce a British Bill of Rights to curb “the incremental expansion of a rights culture without proper democratic oversight.”

Dominic Raab, minister of justice and a politician who has repeatedly criticized the European Court of Human Rights, is presenting the bill. It is set to significantly limit the powers of the courts to adjudicate and to protect even the most basic rights against the UK state, particularly as they relate to immigration, welfare provision, and criminal law. Many of these laws derive directly from the European Convention on Human Rights (whose legal standards are applied and developed by the European Court of Human Rights). It is hard to underestimate the damage that will be done to those most in need of rights protections should the government succeed in its plans.

Most recently, the Tories published a Public Order Bill to prevent “antisocial” political protests. The bill creates new criminal offenses related to political protest and greatly increases the stop-and-search powers of the police to investigate such crimes.

On the basis of previous defeats, it is clear that the current antidemocratic turn can only be prevented through greater resistance from the opposition parties themselves, particularly Labour leadership. The opposition must now work together to explicitly call out the government’s antidemocratic agenda.