The left are crushed. The UK government is starting to look like just another authoritarian European one
Around Europe, the UK general election was followed with huge interest. Leftists were paying particularly close attention, as they understood that a victory for a genuine social democratic party would have an enormous impact on parties and movements around the continent and beyond. Meanwhile, in the brutally simplistic and, ultimately, effective methods of Boris Johnson’s Conservatives, we could also see echoes of our own recent elections, where perceived strong leadership and appeals to national pride struck a chord with many voters.
For those of us living in central Europe, this has been all the more acute. The new British government looks familiar to anyone who has been paying attention to politics in this region – and particularly to Hungary since Viktor Orbán became prime minister again in 2010. In their manifesto, the Conservatives made a pledge to “look at the broader aspects of our constitution”, including the relationship between the three branches of government. That may be vague, but it sounds at least somewhat similar to promises made by Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) to reform the courts, and the ongoing attempts by Orbán’s Fidesz party to take control of the judiciary. Since the election, Johnson has made policy promises straight out of the Fidesz and PiS playbook, including threats against the media, crackdowns on Traveller camps, and the creation of a dedicated immigration and borders department.
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The comparisons between the governments aren’t exact, of course. While Johnson has used racist language on numerous occasions, he hasn’t resorted to a “clash of civilisations” narrative like those repeated by Fidesz or PiS in recent campaigns. And while those parties’ campaigns identified national enemies – for Poland the godless west, for Hungary the “threat” of Islam – that wasn’t a tactic employed by the Tories in this election. But they have been only too happy to rail against the enemies of Brexit in the past, whether that’s judges, bureaucrats or MPs, and they will surely do so again. Let’s not forget, either, that the Conservatives have a direct link to those central European parties: Johnson has met Donald Trump’s former strategist Steve Bannon, who has attempted to create a grand European alliance of nationalists.
No doubt there will be claims that the UK, with its venerable institutions, couldn’t possibly be prone to the same kind of constitutional meddling as in Hungary or Poland. But for all the abuses of power by Fidesz and PiS, they are still reined in to an extent by the EU: governments in this region tend to be too scared of the threat of Brussels cutting their funding, and aware of the overwhelming popularity of EU membership, to risk serious censure by meddling too far. The UK is now free from this sort of concern, so the only barriers to the Conservatives’ potential reforms will be media scrutiny and the judiciary. Fortunately for the press, another manifesto promise was to kill off the Leveson inquiry and promote freedom of speech. Unfortunately for the public, the prime minister’s first soiree following the election was at a party held by a media magnate, and Downing Street is already making threats to the future of the BBC.
Our region has no simple lesson for the UK’s left and centre. If anything can be learned, it is that meeting the right on its own terms is a recipe for obliteration. There are no recent examples of a nominally leftwing party successfully flirting with closed-border nationalism or neoliberalism, whereas there are several examples of this approach leading to electoral disaster. As well as the more obvious western examples of Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD) or France’s Socialists, the decline of Poland’s formerly dominant Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) in the 2000s was due, in part, to its decision to join George Bush’s “coalition of the willing”.
What seems striking from afar is that Labour has successfully attracted a swathe of younger voters and long-term campaigners who were forced out by decisions of the Blair years. It would be a terrible mistake if the party now drove them away. In the Polish election this October, the left managed to find a happy medium between the old guard and younger activists, in no small part thanks to the older, more established group from the SLD swallowing some pride and accepting they may have needed help refreshing their ideas.
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Subsequently, once-rival groups formed an alliance and ran a positive campaign that, unusually for Poland, didn’t focus on attacking enemies. As divided parties, they had been polling at levels that wouldn’t have returned any MPs; together, they returned the left wing to parliament, and have recently polled within a few points of the main opposition. Many of the alliance’s candidates were familiar to locals as long-term activists from the areas they were standing in – not always something seen in Britain, with its safe seats and parachuted-in candidates.
In the wake of such a crushing blow for Labour and the left, Britain is beginning to realise that it is not as special as people – even those watching from overseas – assumed. Its government is starting to look like just another authoritarian European one, and it’s now clear that the hallowed institutions which run on gentlemen’s agreements and convention are, if anything, more prone to abuse than those in central and Eastern Europe. No one country’s situation is exactly analogous to another’s, but a universal lesson seems to be that drifting to the right does not make a party more electable – it simply deprives a country of leftwing politicians, just as in Poland over the past four years. At a time when the most vulnerable in UK society could be about to lose the few protections afforded by the admittedly imperfect EU, that would be an even greater disaster than the election result.
• Stefan Bielik is a writer and teacher from Poland