Illiberal times, liberal times

7th May 2021

Eighteen month after the general election result, there appears to have been another emphatic election result in favour of our illiberal government.

The results from Hartlepool and elsewhere indicate that many in the electorate – a significant amount – are quite at ease with the current governing party.

There has not been a massive ‘loss aversion’ in respect of Brexit – and not has there been any sizeable revolt against the government’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic.

It anything, the governing party is even more entrenched than ever.


The same set of results also show that there is political volatility – a shunning of tribal political labels.

There are also indications that localism – for example the popularity of certain English mayors – is stronger than national political (tribal) loyalties.

And, of course, political support that is easily gained can also be easily lost.

So today’s electoral results are not brilliant from a liberal or progressive perspective – but also not an absolute disaster.

Liberalism and constitutionalism may not now be in political fashion, but they have not been utterly vanquished either.




21 thoughts on “Illiberal times, liberal times”

  1. I’m a floating voter who – much to my surprise – was so taken by the Corbyn agenda and the politician himself that I took part in leaflet dropping for Labour at the 2019 election.

    I loathe everything Johnson stands for and am deeply afraid of the harms he and Tory governments since 2015 have done the UK.

    That said, Starmer’s Labour gave me nothing to vote FOR – and much to vote AGAINST.

    I can’t stand authoritarianism, dishonesty, unfairness and stupidity. It seems to me that Starmer and (acting general secretary) Evans are guilty of all of these in their treatment of many Labour members and constituency parties. I can’t support a party or a leader that I believe to be ethically dubious and managerially incompetent.

    1. Linda, that is exactly what Labours problem is. It seems it has to be against things and not for, but when it can actually say it is against something it whips its MPs to do nothing. People will eventually notice that.

      I’m in NE Scotland and it is same here for all parties, vote against this or that or the other.

      I voted for SNP because I believe they are for something I can believe in (although the authoritarianism is clearer there), and for Alba on our list because I think they could keep the SNP on the right course!

    2. “I can’t stand authoritarianism, dishonesty, unfairness and stupidity. It seems to me that Starmer and (acting general secretary) Evans are guilty of all of these in their treatment of many Labour members and constituency parties. I can’t support a party or a leader that I believe to be ethically dubious and managerially incompetent.”

      Extraordinary. That’s just how I described the party under Corbyn, Formby and Milne!

      1. So we share the same overall values – but disagree on the facts? Or are looking at different facts?

  2. I take comfort from the fact that Wales is still a Labour country, whose leader is a decent and thoughtful man. Johnson’s contempt for Wales – he has met Drakeford just once since becoming PM – is largely mutual, and his promise to “build better” here is regarded as just noise.

  3. yes, Sir Kier did seem such a good choice for the Tory Party. At the time they really wanted him to be the leader of the ops. There was a sense that the illiberal’s had really taken control, this morning. It was quite despairing, but it’s Saturday now

  4. Very difficult. Johnson (aka Wily Coyote) is held aloft by ongoing Covid popularity and funding. Covid came at just the right moment to help Johnson hide some unpleasant realities. But sooner or later real world mechanics will prevail and Wily will head earthwards.

    Meanwhile poor old Starmer is stuck with selling soap powder marketed as ‘Labour’. The boxes are tatty, the typeface blurred, the colour scheme discordant. The contents vary box by box, lumps of old Corbyn and Abbott mixed with bits of Wilson’s pipe and leftover beer and sandwiches. Remember that in Britain oppositions never win elections, the incumbents lose them through sleaze and incompetence. But the political gap can only be so wide, too wide and no matter what the sleaze and incompetence the voters won’t jump.

    Labour’s situation is made more difficult than in the past. The Tories have a firmer grip on the media, capital seldom likes Labour much. The Overton Window is currently very narrow, credible policies from Labour or Tory will be very similar. Labour supporters will have to be dragged kicking and screaming into a very narrow spotlight. The Tories learnt from killing off the LibDems. Labour could be next.

    Humans progress one tombstone at a time. I fear Starmer or his successors and the British people will have a long wait. Welcome to The Great Stasis.

  5. Thanks for the optimism. On the other hand, in England government is determined by the FPTP system. The better results we see are under different voting systems.

  6. I agree with much of the above, Linda and Mike in particular. The authoritarian nature of Johnson and his cronies seems to have bypassed the majority of voters, or fails to concern them. Labour, however, have failed to offer a creditable set of alternatives based on principles e.g. honest, decency, accountability, equality, to name the obvious ones even though this present government should so easily be held to account by a half competent opposition even in this crisis period. The future looks bleak and Johnson’s recent gunboat diplomacy has further sidetracked the country in our usual xenophobic manner as shown in the cheering tabloids. We are so far from being a modern European country, instead always looking back rather than forward, as our government’s appalling conduct over Brexit revealed. Can it get worse? Oh yes, the realities of Brexit have hardly impacted.

  7. I feel your pain. I also feel that you have elided the inconvenient truth that many of Labour’s traditional voters are not what you mean by liberal” and “progressive”. They like some of Labour’s economic offering. (Who wouldn’t welcome more spending on them paid for by some other bugger’s tax rise?) They don’t like to be lectured by politicians who all too often seem to want votes from people they’d really, really like to send to re-education camps. And a belatedly apology dragged from Ed Miliband didn’t erase a long memory of being slapped down if they dared mention immigration.

  8. The parties in power, Tories in England, SNP in Scotland and Labour in Wales are the ones that have done well. Isn’t this a case of rallying round the leadership in a time of crisis? Maybe in a year or so this effect will wear off. Thinking Churchill’s defeat in 1945. And hoping….

    1. Oy, you’re talking about Corbyn-supporting people like me! I think I’m fair-minded, reasonably caring and want decent politics. Why do you think I’m illiberal?

      Perhaps a better starting point for us both is for me to ask you for your definition of what “illiberal” is and why you feel Corbyn supporters are any more “illiberal” than other people?

      1. I find the Corbyn wing of the Party generally (I cannot speak for individuals) illiberal in dismissing, sneering at, and hounding those who (for instance):
        • earn more than them
        • refer the right wing of the Party as being more balanced
        • support constitutional monarchy
        • are Jewish or, heaven forbid, open-minded about Israel
        • can see the point of the left wing of the Tory Party even if they wouldn’t vote for it

        These are the kinds of thing I came across in my local Labour Party before I resigned over Corbyn, plus:

        • anyone who partly supports Israel (without defining “support”) is a “Zio” (without defining “Zio”) and a traitor (without defining “traitor”)
        • anyone who even wants to discuss Israel is assumed to favour Israel’s current government
        • recognising the right to exist of the State of Israel means one is “apartheid,” a “Nazi”, and is against Palestinians
        • Palestinians are solely victims and the underdog – but this position is racist
        • claiming the LP has a problem with anti-Semitism is a “smear”

        and there is still an overall smug self-righteousness which I find sickening.

        No wonder the LP was investigated by the EHRC and extraordinary that Corbyn wouldn’t accept the findings.

        This is not partisan because, like the canary in the mine, what starts with the Jews never ends with the Jews but spreads outwards to include persecution of many others. What starts with a mural tends to end up in murder.

        1. Thank you for your clarifications.

          If I believed that Corbyn, Labour under Corbyn and the Corbynist agenda are what you see them as being then I’d find them no more appealing than you do. That’s not what I believe … so therefore we’re simply disagreeing on what the facts of the case are.

          That disagreement on facts is one reason why I feel it’s so desperately important for the Forde Inquiry report to be published. Having looked up Martin Forde’s past record, I believe he’s got the competence, integrity and determination to get at the full facts and publish them.

          I used to respect the EHRC but think it’s become a fig leaf now rather than the real champion of equality it used to be.

  9. As Albert Salter wisely said, many of Labour’s traditional voters are socially conservative. The population doesn’t conveniently split into two categories, conservatives and liberals. For a long time, the Labour Party pulled off the trick of allying social liberals with those who desired to improving the economic condition of the less well-off. For a long time, that was a sufficient coalition to get elected from time to time.
    The problem that coalition now faces is that improving the economic condition of the less well-off has apparently become a harder. And that is despite the fact that inequality was so much increased in the Thatcher-Major years, so there was something there to reverse. Or at least, with an enlarged middle class, the Blair-Brown administration was too timid to do more than maintain the situation for fear of annoying their marginal voters.
    The traditional Labour voters can reasonably feel that the party has let them down on redistribution. So there was room for someone like a Corbyn to talk the talk of serious redistribution. But Corbyn prescribed old-fashioned Marxist methods few people believe would work.
    The Cakeist Party, which has taken over the Conservative Party in double-quick time, has pulled off a good electoral trick in appealing to that combination of social conservatism and desire for redistribution. It has created a sense of doing something for redistribution with its statist spending policies and cry of levelling up. It will inevitably take time for people to analyse that not much levelling up is occurring, not least given the many present confusions. As Anthony Atkinson comprehensively demonstrated in his 2014 book, “Inequality: What can be done”, only some rather strong redistributive tax policies, as they have on the continent, suffice to get to the lower levels of inequality they enjoy on the continent. The voices against that in the Cakeist Party are very powerful. That’s what is so Cakeist about the Cakeist Party.

    1. Indeed and managed to serve up draconian policies and behaviour with such shining, insincere smiles. “We’re on your side,” as Theresa May bleated over Brexit and this winning slogan looks fit to continue ad nauseam if one is not already thoroughly nauseated by too much cake.

  10. I think the government got away with Brexit (for now anyway), except for Northern Ireland and shellfish, because the pandemic lockdown reduced trading so much. If you didn’t go shopping, you wouldn’t notice there was no food on the shelves. If your factory was closed, you wouldn’t need to import parts and you’d have made nothing to export.

  11. Hartlepool probably says whatever either side wants it to: last gasp of Brexit or end of Labour. time will tell but odds are it is not epoch breaking or making.

    Hoping that HMG will be punished for Covid is probably in vain. Seen from outside and comparing to much of the EU and the US, HMG has been much more competent than the perpetually squabbling British realize. The initial mistakes were bad but by no means unique. The death count per capita is not the highest and the UK counting method may overstate it. People may ridicule and rage at the changes in policy but HMG seems to have had very real science and public policy debates as it tries to adapt to new findings and changes. It’s not smooth but short of a total lockdown, who would expect anything else. Certainly the steady increase across Germany, France, Italy, Spain and others since May puts competence in another light. And the sheer volume and depth of analysis and monitoring is world beating. Time to take tribal politics and Brexit out of the pandemic.

    1. I would not expect HMG to be “punished” but I do expect a review to identify why at least 150,000 of our fellow citizens died as a result of the coronavirus (based on death certificates), and to review choices made about procurement of PPE and other goods and services, timing of locking down and opening up, decisions made in relation opening or closing to schools, and so on.

      Even on the lower figure of 127,000 (from the “28 days” statistic) that is nearly 1900 people per million, which is about double the rate of comparable European countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, or Ireland, and up there with the like of the US, Italy, and Belgium.

      “A few countries did as bad or worse than us” is hardly a ringing endorsement, when many others have done an awful lot better.

      1. Counting Covid deaths is fraught with problems. The UK method of 28 days after infection being classified as Covid is clearly problematic. Excess deaths is also tricky as some deaths like flu dropped because of restrictions while other illnesses left unattended increased.

        Strip out the care home debacle and the UK looks no worse than all the major EU countries. Trends also suggest that the UK’s early mistakes were collide by quite good controls while eg France and Germany have steadily worsened even with better treatment.

        A good inquiry is due but Brits could for once drop their incredible obsession with doing down everything (Brexit exceptionalism aside). The UK has led the infected world in virus tracking and analysis, rapid response testing to new outbreaks and changing rules as science and outcomes dictate. Seen from the US and Europe it has been far more consistent in trying to maintain a logical public policy (not the same as simply “following the science”). One thing the inquiry should focus on is why the UK with more consistent and generally tougher restrictions since May has had more deaths. France has had 25% more infections with about the same population but fewer deaths (although it is getting close). Madrid has had far less restrictive rules and yet fewer infections and deaths per capita. And why did Belgium which has tried really hard have such disastrous outcomes? Countries that did an awful lot better? Germany but not as much as its image. Poland but close to collapse a month ago. The small nordic countries. Holland. Apart from that? Americas awful with some small exceptions, Africa no one is sure, Asia mixed but living in fear of a new wave. ANZ yes but no one in Europe could realistically close down to that extent.

        It is easy to blame HMG because Boris has been so bad on so much but on Covid that seems wrong or at least more complex. It’s a bit like the mantra in the US that all the and outcomes are Republican and the good ones are Democrat which is completely at odds with the actual figures

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