At its last party conference before an election it’s expected to lose, Britain’s ruling party is bringing fringe ideas into the mainstream.
With an election due to be held within the next year, the British government is struggling desperately to win over public support – and with perhaps only months to go till it faces the electorate, its rhetoric is morphing into what looks like full-on populism.
Among the latest ideas the ruling Conservative Party’s MPs have floated are preventing a “tax on meat” (which the opposition has never proposed), and banning “15-minute neighbourhoods” which would supposedly allow local government to restrict people’s movements.
These are false claims that have been widely debunked, but they have lately gathered traction among fringe right-wing groups active on social media. And by European standards, the Conservative government is in fact a relative latecomer to these particular theories.
The concept of a 15-minute neighbourhood was first formulated in France in the mid-2010s, and adopted by Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo as her city began to re-emerge from the COVID pandemic.
As the idea spread to other world cities, it became the target of conspiracy theorists radicalised during the pandemic, who see it as the next wave of an insidious plot to make lockdowns permanent on the pretext of combating climate change.
This idea dovetails with other fringe theories about creeping totalitarianism in everyday life among them a wariness of the “cashless economy” and claims that a “globalist” elite is conspiring to ban meat consumption and force citizens to subsist on insects instead.
The insect theory has enjoyed a surge of interest in Lithuania, where public authorities have had to push back hard against it. It’s also caught on in Bulgaria, including with the help of a loudmouthed fringe politician – and a prominent Russian state TV host.
But these outlandish theories are not just the province of Russia-amenable far-right media and fringe grassroots protest movements: they also have their advocates in certain European governments.
Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, which is fighting to secure another term in a 15 October election, has actively propagated the insect-consumption story.
Earlier this year, several PiS politicians accused opposition leader Donald Tusk and his party of planning to deny Poles access to meat. One PiS lawmaker, Bartosz Kownacki, declared that “Instead of chicken, eat a worm” because “this is their real election programme”. Tusk derided the claim as embarrassingly desperate.
Also subscribing to the insect theory is far-right Italian politician Matteo Salvini, whose party supports the current government in Rome.
While the Conservatives have not mentioned insects specifically, that they are raising the twin spectres of government control of meat consumption and limits on personal movement indicates that they have identified an audience potentially receptive to this sort of rhetoric.
So why now? According to Tim Bale, Professor of Politics at Queen Mary, University of London, the dire state of the party’s polling and its exhaustion after 13 years in power are both weighing heavy.
“The Conservatives know fully well that the fundamentals – the economy, the NHS, and even asylum and immigration – are running against them so they are basically throwing a whole bunch of ‘war-on-woke’ and ‘green crap’ stuff against the wall in the hope that some of it will stick. I’m not sure it’s that coordinated or coherent, more clutching at straws.”
Bale, whose book The Conservative Party After Brexit charts what has happened to the party in the last five years – which have seen it led by four different prime ministers – is unconvinced that the government’s sudden investment in outré paranoid ideas has much of an audience among the electorate.
“The Tories target voters are middle-aged to elderly, mainly white, mainly home-owning, car-driving, non-university graduates with culturally conservative views,” he explains.
“They’re hoping that the ‘war-on-woke’ and ‘green crap’ stuff will mobilise them to turn out and vote and, even better, stem any losses to Labour which might result from the loss of their reputation for economic competence and the dire state of public services.
“It may also bring a few supporters of the radical right-wing populist party Reform UK back into the Tory fold. And who’s to say it might not work. The question is will it be enough – to which the answer is probably not, but what else have they got?”
The Reform UK party that Bale mentions is the rebranded version of the Brexit Party, formerly led by Nigel Farage. The party has not won any electoral representation since the UK left the EU except for a tiny handful of local government seats. That in turn raises the question of how much the Conservatives have to gain from competing with it.
Yet when Farage, who has traded on the insect theory himself, arrived at this week’s Conservative conference in Manchester, he was all but mobbed by enthusiastic supporters. And The Spectator, the British press’s top establishment right-wing political magazine, recently named him the most powerful figure on the British right, ranking him above the sitting Tory prime minister.
Having stepped back from running for office himself, Farage’s main mouthpiece is his show on GB News, a right-wing news channel whose anchors include full-on conspiracy theorists and notorious provocateurs attacking “wokeness” in all its forms.
Meanwhile, as the Conservatives use their conference to vent more bizarre ideas than ever, Bale is not optimistic about the state of the party – or of British politics in general.
“It’s pretty depressing, really,” he says. “when you’ve got a government that’s reduced to telling people that, among other things, it’s going to make it easier for people to appeal against parking tickets, we’re not exactly in visionary territory, are we?”
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