The Tories Are Capturing ‘Politically Neutral’ Public Institutions

Checks on state power are disappearing.

by Steven Methven

1 September 2022

Former BBC Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis
Emily Maitlis has revealed that “an active agent of the Tory Party” has been exerting political influence on the BBC. Edinburgh Television Festival

Former Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis has revealed that “an active agent of the Tory Party” on the BBC board has been exerting political influence on BBC news coverage. Sir Robbie Gibb – a former adviser to GB News and Theresa May’s spin doctor – was appointed to the board by Boris Johnson in 2021. Allegedly, he has used his power to quell criticism of the government by trying to block the appointment of journalists who might not toe the Tory line.

Influencing the political slant of the BBC through political appointments is hardly novel. Margaret Thatcher did it, and so did Harold Wilson. But looking beyond Broadcasting House, a more sinister pattern becomes apparent. Since 2019, the Tories have represented a new brand of rightwing populism in the UK, displaying a greater ruthlessness in consolidating power than any of their predecessors. In doing so, they’re deploying an important tool of rightwing populism: ‘politics-led state capture’. 

Politics-led state capture.

Politics-led state capture is a term used by Liz David-Barrett, professor of governance and integrity at Sussex university, to describe the politically-motivated and permanent disruption of the neutrality of ‘non-political’ public institutions in favour of a political and economic elite. Many of these institutions – think of the judiciary, for example, as well as our many independent regulators, commissions and inquiries –  place checks on the government’s ability to control key parts of the public and private sectors. Once institutions are captured, those checks disappear. 

Thus, the reach of the government is extended; it is empowered to quell criticism, shape the private sphere, and entrench its authority. This kind of state capture shifts what an electorate finds acceptable political practice, while shutting down avenues of accountability. 

Political neutrality is arguably a fictional notion. Nevertheless, it is valued by liberalism, whose primary means of achieving it has been via the much-vaunted ‘marketplace of ideas’. The idea being: get enough political diversity amongst the successful professionals appointed as institutional decision-makers, and some kind of representational average will prevail.  

The left, on the other hand, has long recognised that a diversity of opinion amongst the narrow group of technocrats who float to the political surface – buoyed by patronage and prestige – is hardly representative. But whilst rightly widening the diversity of candidates within these technocratic institutions, the left often also shores them up by failing to challenge their structures. 

The recent right, however, has no interest in a representational average. It knows that power trumps process. And it likes to move fast. It will change laws, politicise appointments and resort to simple cronyism to capture independent institutions. 

Rightwing ideologues protecting ‘equality’.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) was set up in 2007 to enforce the Equalities Act. Its job is to protect human rights, with an emphasis on protected characteristics. While independent, its chair has been batted around between left and right since the commission began. But in 2020, Theresa May’s 2016 appointment David Isaac quit. Despite Isaac being an embedded Tory lawyer, the political interference of the Johnson government proved too much for him.  

As Women’s and Equalities Minister, Liz Truss was responsible for commissioner appointments. She stacked the EHRC with rightwing ideologues. One, David Goodhart, described BLM protestors as “statistically naïve”, and said the Windrush scandal shouldn’t halt the Tories’ hostile environment policies. Another, Jessica Butcher, stated that women should not “go cry to someone about how you might have been gender-discriminated against,” but “take ownership of how you put yourself forward, and to mould yourself, change yourself to the circumstances as required”. And Alasdair Henderson is an EHRC commissioner who liked a tweet describing the words “misogynist” and “homophobe” as “highly ideological propaganda terms”. He also actively encouraged the EHRC to intervene on behalf of transphobic Maya Forstater, which led to the protection of gender critical beliefs in law.

The EHRC is far from independent. Instead, its commissioners have been selected for their Tory-aligned ‘anti-woke’ sympathies. 

Legislating disenfranchisement. 

Another Tory target is the Electoral Commission – an ostensibly independent body aiming to keep elections clean. But a 2022 Act defanged the commission, compelling it to pursue government objectives when organising elections. All but one of its ten commissioners objected to this provision, arguing that it imperilled the commission’s independence. It was pushed through anyway. 

The Act also brought in compulsory photographic voter ID, making it harder for the young, the disabled, and Black and minority ethnic people – generally anti-Tory – to vote. An independent parliamentary report estimated that this would disenfranchise 1.1 million UK voters. Obviously, that was the point.

Tories regulating the media.

Ofcom is the independent body that regulates the media. The Johnson government tried to capture it by installing former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre as its commissioner. He bombed his first interview, and was told that his “strong convictions” made him unsuitable for the role. 

But the government stepped in and forced the panel to re-run the process, giving Dacre a second shot. It appointed a crony to make the selection the second time around: Michael Prescott had been an editor at the Sunday Times, but at the time worked at Hanover Communications. Founded by John Major’s communications director, Hanover staff regularly become Conservative special advisers. Dacre pulled out of the process, but the job went to another top Tory, Lord Grade

Independent state institutions?

The list goes on. The privatisation of Channel 4 is an obvious attempt to quash the independence of a critical outlet. The government’s long refusal to publish the ‘Russia Report’ was clearly designed to evade the question of Russian interference in the Brexit referendum, and undermined the independence of parliament’s intelligence and security committee. And justice secretary Dominic Raab’s leaked plan to limit the powers of the judiciary to challenge the legality of the government’s actions would permanently increase the government’s ability to push through legislation that contravenes long-established rights.

What the Tories are doing is bad news for democracy. But only complaining about the ruthless consolidation of power by the right can sound like liberal whining. It can be hypocrisy, too – if, given the chance, a certain wing of the left would do the same, as, arguably, Tony Blair did. A better left approach is one that sees the good in these liberal institutions – the presence of checks on executive power – while asking: What makes them so liable to state capture? The answer is their technocratic natures.

It’s an odd tendency to think that, of all people, the socially successful – the high-flying professionals who tend to run public institutions – are more likely to be politically neutral. After all, we live in a deeply capitalist society. And such success depends upon a strong – political – commitment to that ideology. But it’s the illusion of neutrality amongst their technocratic bosses that makes these institutions so easy to capture. At best, they might be neutral between the narrow poles of the prevailing political system. But ultimately, they’re all committed to the system that created and sustains them – making them, in some cases, corruptible, but in every case unable to meaningfully resist state power.

The left must fight to democratise public institutions. And that fight begins with the thought that successful business-people or barristers – no matter their background – are worse equipped to hold the state to account than those with a lesser stake in the status quo. It’s surely no accident that the state never trusts ordinary workers, who are best attuned to its failings and abuses, to hold it to account. What this thinking will result in is an open question – but its guiding principle is one that only the left truly embraces: real democracy.

Steven Methven is a writer and researcher for Novara Media’s live YouTube show Novara Live.

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