This guest piece was written by Matt McClean.
In early January the Conservative party unveiled their new big plan to deal with the torrent of strikes that have plagued the UK over the past several months. But negotiating, compromising or in any way trying to lower the temperature of the room was not what they had in mind. Instead, they proposed a new bill requiring minimum service levels for specific public sectors (primarily health, fire and rescue, education and transport).
Unsurprisingly this was met with cacophonous outrage from Labour and the Unions. Some have argued that this could effectively ban strikes in these services since the minimum service level requirements are too high. And members of the health service have argued that they did provide minimum service levels anyway making this legislation not only redundant but unhelpful for the negotiation process.
But as Grant Shapps argued a month ago there are other liberal democracies with similar laws that get on just fine with strikes. And Jacob Rees-Mogg suggested that the point of this is not to hurt strikes but protect the public. In a vacuum, there is some legitimacy to these arguments both for and against. The issue is we don't live in a vacuum and the legislation is in reality only a data point on a growing political trend within the Tory party: to create a demon that they can convince the public to fear thus staying in power.
We have seen this through the rhetoric used throughout these strikes. Continuously pinning the blame on union bosses and focusing on the negative impact strikes have on the average citizen rather than solutions that could help the workers striking. This type of rhetoric we can call the creation of the fictional demon. The legislation itself is perhaps more a mix of virtue signalling that they are defeating or at least fighting back against said demon and a continuation of that rhetoric but in a different medium.
Pointing out this tactic is not a particularly new insight; both academics and members of the media have commented on this in a number of different areas starting with Brexit to more recently illegal immigration (again). However, in the context of recent strikes, mainstream media seems to have missed the mark somewhat. For most news pieces the focus has been on if the bill itself is effective or ethical while few seem to be focused on the bill's political purpose. Not the words in the bill but the context written between every line.
So what is that context?
While the demonisation of groups is a political story as old as time this particular tale can be traced back to the UKIP section of the Tory backbenchers who campaigned relentlessly against the EU. This tactic resulted in a massive amount of short-term success through 2016 and into the 2017 general election. It would be naive to pin their success solely on fear-mongering since a more radical labour party and a global pushback against the rising left along with a myriad of smaller factors all helped the Conservatives win. On the other hand, It would also be foolish to say that fear-mongering was not a major tactic, if not by Terresa May then by the party more generally.
Then came the king of fear-mongering, the lord of verbal nonsense Boris Johnson who in the background had been a major contributor to these political games up until this point. Once in power, he took the tactic to a whole nother level leaning further into the ‘culture wars’. And now here we are sitting on the couch watching members of parliament confidently refer to the left as “loony-lefties” and woke liberals like these slogans somehow deconstruct over a century's worth of left-wing political theory.
They clearly don't, so why use them? Because it creates fear. It creates a ‘them’ for the ‘us’ to distrust. Because it produces anger and resentment against groups of people who either don't deserve it or simply don't exist (at least to the extent the Tory party would make you believe). And most importantly because all of those emotions make you vote for the Conservative party when election day comes around.
But here's the catch.
I think the party took it too far, increasingly these slogans seem to be getting more desperate, no longer a proud call to arms but now a pitiful wail of the slowly dying right (quite literally when you examine generational voting trends). The issue is they haven’t just made real problems seem bigger than they are, they told bald-faced lies about the purpose of Black Lives Matter, about the economic ‘drain’ the EU had on the UK and now about who is to blame for the continuation of these strikes.
But when you tell people that there is a real problem that needs to be solved at some point you have to be seen to be solving it and in recent years that has not really been the Tories' brand image. Incompetence and chaos might be more accurate descriptors for them. The entire issue has created a real catch twenty-two, they manufactured a monster but because it isn’t real they can’t actually kill it and any legislation they make to attempt to kill it only further buries this country in economic and social turmoil.
So how do you kill the monster? Well, they seem to be trying to create a whole new one and with very little evidence proclaiming that the old demons are dead. But again the people are beginning to see the emperor has no clothes. There is growing pushback even among centre-right media outlets against things like Suella Braverman’s comments around illegal migrants or the Torries' repeated refusal to help negotiations with union bosses. Nonetheless, this is the new demon of the Tory party. Whether they can convince anyone it is real is yet to be seen.
Featured Image Credit: Evening Standard