Earlier this year Michael Gove surprised people by quoting the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci in a speech (the second time he has done so), but readers of political theory may recognise that the Tories’ strategy owes more to another student of Gramsci: the German communist activist Rudi Dutschke. He coined the term “the long march through the institutions” to describe the strategy of gaining a dominant position in each of the major institutions in society, in Gramscian terms, to gain hegemony.
The Tories started their long march in the 1980s by ripping through Britain’s socialist institutions: trade unions were shackled, publicly owned enterprise was privatised and council housing was sold off. The results were clear: a few people got very rich, poverty rose and inequality widened. No subsequent government reversed these changes, instead bolstering them. As Tony Blair said of Thatcher: “I always thought my job was to build on some of the things she had done rather than reverse them.” Today, a generation of young people are less likely to own their own home and earn less than their parents’ generation, while paying exorbitant rents to parasitic landlords.
Having attacked the institutions of collectivism in the 1980s, the Conservatives are continuing their long march, extending it through the institutions that attempt to level the playing field – and regulate government. They are coming for Britain’s liberal institutions: the BBC, the Electoral Commission, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), the Freedom of Information Act and those pesky “activist lawyers”.
The recent appointments of David Goodhart and Jessica Butcher as EHRC commissioners are just one example of this. The commission lost 70% of its funding during George Osborne’s austerity years, but now it is being hollowed out philosophically, too. Goodhart is on record as praising the racist “hostile environment” policies that led to the Windrush scandal, while Butcher has suggested that women facing discrimination should “go ‘well come on then, I’ll show you’” rather than “go cry to someone about how you might have been gender-discriminated against”. Someone like the EHRC presumably?
After last week’s EHRC report that found the Home Office “unlawfully ignored warnings” about its “hostile environment”, the department must now work with the public body to change its culture and practices. Maybe that’s why the Tories are so keen to pack it with those less vigilant about discrimination.
For 15 years now, the Freedom of Information Act has been hugely important in increasing the transparency and scrutiny of government. Strangely, Blair continues to defend the Iraq war but regrets the act for partially opening up the “confidentiality” of government. Michael Gove clearly shares his scepticism, as under him the Cabinet Office has established a unit that is actively delaying or blocking the release of information legally demanded under the act.
The Conservative party chair, Amanda Milling, has said the Electoral Commission should be overhauled or abolished. Its current chair, John Holmes, is being forced out and mandatory voter ID is being mooted, which would suppress working-class voters who are less likely to have ID – another unwelcome import from the US, where voter suppression has long been part of Republican strategy. The Electoral Commission has been a brake on well-funded Conservative party election campaigns, as well as the leave campaign in the 2016 referendum.
A couple of months ago, rumours abounded that the BBC was about to have the former Conservative donor Richard Sharp imposed as its new chair (Sharp is also Rishi Sunak’s former boss at Goldman Sachs), while the new director general, Tim Davie, is the former deputy chairman of the Hammersmith and Fulham Conservative party, and stood as a Tory council candidate.
Priti Patel’s rhetoric about “activist lawyers” may already have led to one being attacked, but the successive cuts to legal aid have had the effect of closing law centres and leaving tenants, benefit claimants, migrants and refugees without representation – unable to defend their interests against the state, landlords and corporate interests.
Of course this doesn’t mean the Tories are finished with Britain’s socialist or social democratic institutions. The 2016 Trade Union Act under David Cameron, which toughened what were already the most restrictive trade union laws in the western world, and the current proposals to scrap the union learning fund, are signs of continuity.
There is clear acceleration, too, from the Thatcher era. Under compulsive competitive tendering in the early 1980s, councils were turned from providers to purchasers that contract in services from private companies. The NHS was prepped for the same transformation by the creation of the internal market in Thatcher’s final years.
The further hollowing out of the NHS and local councils through the Covid-19 pandemic – with Serco and Deloitte running an inferior system of testing and tracing – shows the Tories know how to put a crisis to good use. Not for those who need effective services during a pandemic, but for those who want to make a profit. Serco’s chief executive has said that such contracts “go a long way in cementing the position of the private sector companies in the public sector supply chain”, specifically the NHS.
In the 1980s the Tories’ changes were about reducing the institutional resistance to free market capitalism – trade unions constrained employers, council housing acted as a bulwark against landlords, and public ownership demonstrated the entrepreneurial potential and the ethics of service without needing profit. Today’s hollowing out of Britain’s liberal institutions is to consolidate that position and reduce not just opposition, but scrutiny and the liberal principles of truth, rationality, fairness, accountability and democracy. Handy if you’re keen on doling out lucrative government contracts to your donors and friends.
Liberals and the left need to take a leaf out of Michael Gove’s book and start brushing up on Marxist analyses of power, because what is being rolled back is democracy – and we all have a common interest in defending it against the barbarian kleptocrats at the gates.
• Andrew Fisher was the Labour party’s executive director of policy from 2016 to 2019