Could the disintegration of the Tory party create a lurch to the hard right?

Amid the current mood of anti-politics, is the climate right for the hard right to rise?

Labour will be the next government. But will this defeat for the Tories lead to their demise as a once “Great Old Party” of Burke, Disraeli, Churchill, MacMillan and Heath?

The hard right has advanced in the European Parliament elections. Nationalist populism is in the ascendency. Authoritarianism Trump-style is toxic. Global threats to democracy are real. Could the disintegration of the Tory party create a lurch to the hard right in Britain as the Reform Party and Nigel Farage join with the factions within the Tory party, including a new group of soon to be redundant MPs, to form a new political force or movement in UK politics? Suella Braverman is already arguing “unite the right”.

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Prime Minister Rushi Sunak during a BBC General Election interview Panorama special. As he detaches himself from the realities inflicting the Conservative Party, he may be helping to create a space where the hard right can thrive, argues Henry McLeish. PIC:  Jeff Overs/BBC/PA WirePrime Minister Rushi Sunak during a BBC General Election interview Panorama special. As he detaches himself from the realities inflicting the Conservative Party, he may be helping to create a space where the hard right can thrive, argues Henry McLeish. PIC:  Jeff Overs/BBC/PA Wire
Prime Minister Rushi Sunak during a BBC General Election interview Panorama special. As he detaches himself from the realities inflicting the Conservative Party, he may be helping to create a space where the hard right can thrive, argues Henry McLeish. PIC: Jeff Overs/BBC/PA Wire

What is certain is the current mood of anti-politics influencing public opinion. A view confirmed in a new report from Sir John Curtice,

“Damaged Politics”, highlights the fact that trust and confidence in our political system is at an all-time low. This could become the decisive political issue of the next decade. No one should doubt the advance of reckless populism and the apparent ease with which it can attract widespread support.

Rishi Sunak is lurching from one crisis to another, but his campaign may be more about life beyond political defeat, as Tory MPs turn to

cult figure Nigel Farage. The PM has adopted a near messianic pose, disowning a faction ridden Tory party, refusing to take any responsibility for 14 years of ruinous government, and creating the impression that on his watch everything is world beating.

While the Tories are not yet beyond the grave, they are dictating the terms of this election campaign and collapsing the scope for change of the new Labour Government. Obsessing about the need for low or no taxes as some moral imperative, without the immediate prospect of economic growth or borrowing, is a death wish for the public services already in a critical state of decline. The Tories most potent weapon is fear, acting as a curse on our politics and this campaign.

The US provides valuable insights as to what might happen next in the UK. Cultural wars and woke. Low or no taxes seen as essential to capitalism, freedom and the family. The disintegration of the Republican Party. Immigration used to stoke fear, division, and racism. We are already beginning to look a lot like America.

Replacing MAGA with Make England Great Again (MEGA) will disrespect and exclude the three other nations of the UK, which are at varying levels of political unrest. Then the spectre of Farage, a cheap patriot but for many the hero of Brexit insanity and a toxic reminder of hate, populism, racism and anti-Europeanism masquerading behind the image of a wise cracking, beer drinking man of the people. Meanwhile, snake oil merchants offering simple solutions to complex problems are making waves in Trumps America and in Europe. There is likely to be an appetite for a Reform party tie up with right wing Tories.

In addition to capitalism, often linked to low taxation as a symbol of freedom and the family, there is another factor which binds the US and UK – the “First Past The Post”(FPTP) electoral system, which distorts reality and creates a divisive, polarised and disrespected electorate. The original Greek concept of Demos Kratos - rule by the people - has now become rule by the party. This archaic electoral system is often promoted because of its simplicity, convenience, strong government, and gets things done by the speed of decision making. But this electoral system does none of this. The two major parties gain at the expense of minority parties. FPTP more worryingly allows governments to be formed with remarkably low levels of public support, providing very unrepresentative government. Evidence of the shortcomings of FPTP-winner takes all- is overwhelming.

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Of 43 European countries, 40 of them use some form of Proportional Representation. The UK stands alone in Europe using the winner takes all voting system. Even the US is experimenting with “ranked voting” in a small number of US states. Britain is not.

The most startling distortions of democracy was the general election in 2015 when the SNP won 56 out of the 59 seats in Scotland with

only 50 % of the total vote…. the other 50 % of voters got three seats!

The FPTP electoral system is archaic and dangerously unfit for the multi-party age. In the 2019 election, 43.6 % voted Conservative.

Boris Johnson became Prime Minister but with less than 30 % of those eligible to vote in the UK. Put another way nearly 70 %

of the UK electorate didn’t support Boris Johnson or his party.

Reviving public trust in politics and government will be key to rebuilding the confidence of the electorate. Every vote must count.

The UK faces obvious dangers as economic growth stutters and public services decline. An incoming Labour government will have to

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manage expectations. But issues of Europe, devolution, progressive taxation, immigration, crime, race, social care and climate change and grotesque levels of inequality and poverty will not go away and may well be the battlefield of the hard right.

One helpful reform would be to ditch FPTP, broaden out the base of progressive politics to achieve a defence of social democracy and seek a consensus to drive forward a movement that reflects a push for justice, equality and a different kind of future free from the mire of a real or imaginary past.

The Tories have shrunk the future but this should not diminish a much needed injection of hope and vision.

Henry McLeish is a former First Minister of Scotland who served as Labour MP and MSP for Central Fife and is a visiting professor at the University of South Florida

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