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THE other day I woke up to the BBC Radio news. The headline story was that “dozens of Conservative MPs have written to the Prime Minister to demand that he commit to removing all Covid-19 legal restrictions by the end of April.”
It was a bizarre, reckless, self-defeating plan, which even Boris Johnson rejected. But how it became such big news tells us something about the artificiality of mainstream politics right now.
The letter calling for the lifting of all lockdown measures by April was created by what the BBC termed the “lockdown-sceptic Covid Recovery Group (CRG),” with around 63 members. If you look at BBC news, this minority group of Tory backbenchers are regularly asked about their demands to lift the lockdown.
How did “dozens” of Tory backbenchers come to dominate the news ? Were they representing a popular opinion?
Far from it. While the CRG have always pushed against lockdown, polling has shown the lockdown has been overwhelmingly popular: around 80 per cent of the population backed the latest lockdown before Johnson announced it. Polls show people favour even stricter measures — with 77 per cent supporting post-6pm curfews in January.
The Labour opposition, with 203 MPs, is more associated with the calls for stricter lockdowns to be enforced sooner, but the backbench Tory CRG consistently gets a lot of BBC coverage, despite being a small group with unpopular policies.
It feels a bit like the BBC is really more interested in dissent within the ruling party than from the opposition, as if they were the permanently ruling party — a sort of one-party Tory state, where the “opposition” is permanently relegated to subordinate role.
So how did this happen? Partly it is because the BBC News is heavily influenced by the newspapers, which are heavily dominated by Tory titles. This creates one distortion on the BBC’s flawed attempt at impartiality.
The Telegraph relentlessly promotes the CRG position, with February Telegraph headlines like “Clamour for faster lifting of lockdown” and “Johnson cannot afford to be overly cautious about lifting lockdown” creating the impression of a popular anti-lockdown surge.
The Daily Mail often joins in. A recent headline demanded: “Now take the brakes off, Boris” — which sounds like the paper wants the country to crash into a wall.
When Johnson finally announced his more cautious “map” out of lockdown, the press conference was dominated by serious questions about what the new rules meant and whether they could be justified. But Daily Mail political editor Jason Groves brought the tone down to childish public schoolboy gibberish.
“What’s happened to you? Have you become a gloomster?” Groves asked. The Mail, like the Telegraph, wants to create the impression that there is a great groundswell of anti-lockdown feeling and Johnson is full of a secret enthusiasm to join the cause.
But the papers know it doesn’t exist. They’ve read the polls. They’ve seen how hard it is to get anyone outside a cranky bunch of backbench Tory MPs to push this cause.
They know that actual attempts to create “anti-lockdown” political movements have floundered, as they attracted too-small crowds dominated by eccentric “anti-vax” activists. The only significant “spontaneous” anti-lockdown movement has been the secret rave scene, which the Mail and Telegraph have not been able to back.
They also know the history shows that the “Tory libertarian backbencher” pushes for imposing the lockdown late or releasing it early — as with the Christmas debacle — have backfired badly. The Telegraph is happy to ignore the very recent history, as are the Times and the Mail.
Essentially they are happy to risk people’s health to get more quickly to some kind of post-lockdown spending splurge, which they hope will help their businesses and the businesses they support, even if this risks their ageing readers’ lives.
In turn the BBC still feels obliged to report this “clamour” even though it is artificial, conscious they are a state broadcaster, with government-controlled finances. So during a long period of Conservative rule, they have bent their “impartiality” towards the Conservatives — which also makes things simpler by adding to the chances of further Conservative governments.
This adds to the BBC acting as if dissent within the ruling party is more important than the actual opposition. This includes reporting not only the CRG’s “clamour” to end the lockdown, but also reporting their arguments without question.
CRG leader Steve Baker MP argues we need to release the lockdown because it causes poverty and “if people are in poverty that shortens their lives.” But this is the same Steve Baker who voted 16 times for the bedroom tax and 52 times for a reduction in spending on welfare. Similarly the CRG’s interest in reopening schools comes from MPs who are not known for pushing for extra school funding: for them, reopening schools is really a lever for re-opening the economy, pell mell.
I am not arguing there are not reasonable arguments about Covid-19 restrictions, which are necessary, but not welcome. A lockdown is a blunt tool, which hurts as well as helps. In many ways popular support for even more repressive measures like curfews is worrying.
But the shape of the argument is badly skewed, as the “commercial” media and in turn the BBC treat politics like something that involves the Conservative Party, with everyone else being bit players.
We need to break out of this artificial “one-party state” across politics, not just in relation to Covid-19. There are two ways of doing this. The first is for the opposition party to focus and crystallise opposition — which is less possible with Keir Starmer’s “constructive criticism” approach.
The second way to change the news is to make our own news. We will need to break the Westminster consensus with political movements from the grassroots. That is difficult during “lockdown,” when meetings, rallies, demonstrations and strikes are harder to organise. But we have a roadmap out of lockdown now and need to be ready for the end of a period of political shadowboxing. We need to get ready to enter the ring again.
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