Since the Conservatives won their crafty but narrow election victory in May, they have made other subtle and not-so-subtle adjustments to the playing field of British politics. In October, they gave MPs in England, where their majority is much more solid than in the UK as a whole, greater voting rights than non-English MPs on matters deemed to affect England alone – “English votes for English laws”, or Evel for short.
In August, the prime minister David Cameron created 26 new Conservative peers. Even the usually Tory-supporting Times was uncomfortable at what it saw as an ongoing effort to “pack” the sporadically rebellious House of Lords with government supporters: “Mr Cameron has now created more peers than any other modern prime minister.” Government proposals for taming the Lords further, by reducing its powers to veto legislation, are expected to be slipped out before Christmas.
The current trade union bill, too, looks like an attempt to give the Tories an impregnability that their small Commons majority does not. By requiring that trade unionists take the trouble to opt in individually to union funds for political parties, even though those funds are already subject to regular ballots, the bill threatens to cut off much of Labour’s largest and longest-established source of money. Meanwhile, the bill’s many proposals to make strikes and other union activities more difficult, particularly in the public sector, suggest a state-shrinking government crudely trying to minimise opposition to its policies. In September, the Financial Times, usually no friend of unions, said the bill was “out of proportion”, and would “threaten basic rights of assembly and free expression”.
This year, the government has also increasingly menaced the BBC, another potential centre of resistance, or at least, subjected it to inconvenient scrutiny. During the election campaign, according to the corporation’s then political editor Nick Robinson, Cameron responded to a BBC story that displeased him by telling journalists: “I’m going to close them down after the election.” Within days of winning it Cameron appointed John Whittingdale, long an advocate of drastically shrinking the BBC, as his culture secretary, responsible for negotiating the BBC’s charter, which sets out how the corporation operates, and which expires next year.
“The Tories have found themselves in government, probably to their surprise, and they’ve realised that their hold on power is thin,” says Norman Baker, the former Lib Dem MP and coalition minister, who lost his seat in May. “They want to make sure they stay there.” … The Labour MP Chris Bryant, shadow leader of the Commons, is blunter: “I think the Conservatives are rigging the system massively.”
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