This time last year, Lee Anderson was a name perhaps not yet well known within the mainstream of British politics. However it is a name that has always raised eyebrows within the ‘Westminster bubble’, not just among the parliamentary opposition, but also within the Conservative itself. The Member of Parliament for Ashfield has recently been appointed as the party’s deputy chairman, quite a promotion for a man who had at this point only ever been a backbencher.
Even before his selection as a Conservative candidate in 2019 he was gaining a reputation for controversy amongst MPs and commentators, and his appointment as deputy chair of the party has been met by many across the political spectrum with dismay. It is important, to understand the history of Anderson’s time in politics, as his ‘rise’ (using the term rather loosely) has coincided with, in my view, the general descent into unabashed shamelessness that has characterised the Conservative Party from 2016 onwards and, worryingly, could signal their aim to go even further.
Controversial candidate and backbencher
Anderson isn’t a household name as an MP just yet, but his party is not ignorant to his controversies. It might help, then, to list some of the times Anderson has appeared in the media – to really get a flavour of the type of MP that the 2023 Conservative Party wishes to promote.
Anderson, while seeking election in a marginal seat, was caught out in a now famous piece of reportage by Michael Crick. He was phoning a friend. In this call he asked his friend to pose as an anonymous voter, to agree with Anderson on policy and have him appear as though he was well known in the community. Some may have thought this example of petty confidence trickery would have been below the ethical standards expected from a parliamentary candidate, and such an act – even so close to the marginal election as it was – should have cost Anderson his candidacy. Anderson won the constituency by some 5,000 votes. This is a fairly minor episode in his career, yet it offers a taste of the shamelessness of the new deputy chairman.
Even in 2019, it wasn’t the confidence trickery grift alone that should have raised alarm bells over Anderson’s demeanor. A pattern of behaviour was emerging. Before his candidacy, he was investigated by his own party over allegations of antisemitism. These were prompted by his repeated posts in a right-wing Facebook group that would commonly discuss George Soros conspiracy theories – a common far/alt-right antisemitic conspiracy trope. Anderson, further, felt it was reasonable to accuse the National Trust, of all institutions, of ‘cultural Marxism’.
Showing No Signs of Changing
So, why go into such detail about Anderson’s past? Now that he’s not sat braying at the fringes of the party following the ERG playbook of outrageous attention-seeking, surely he’ll dial this rhetoric back? After all, Rishi Sunak has attempted to be the ‘sensible’ prime minister following Boris Johnson and Liz Truss – multiple separate scandals within the party notwithstanding – surely that would be the direction the party would want to take in 2023? Well, no – because Anderson is still doing it. And at a more rapid rate. In fact, it was difficult to even write this piece, as almost daily he has made another controversial statement that forces you to take a step back and question how we got to this stage.
Within days of his appointment, the Spectator dropped an interview with Anderson where he proclaimed the death penalty should return – citing that it has a “100% success rate” at stopping offenders re-committing crimes. Such a comment from an MP is just ludicrous, considering the wealth of data, studies and expert opinion we have had for decades on the harm capital punishment does and of its lack of deterrent value. You’d be forgiven for thinking a view like that is taken straight from the Daily Mail’s online comment section but, no, unfortunately that is an elected member of the British parliament calling for the return of barbaric vengeance punishments.
Anderson has most recently made it into the press again for claiming Calais refugee charities are “just as bad as people smugglers”. Unsurprisingly, the migrant crisis is a favourite battleground for Anderson; one where he can throw out just as many unchecked comments as he likes to fuel the current culture war discourse and misinformation around Channel crossings. Comparing charitable endeavours to people traffickers is a fresh take, but his recent rantings are in line with much of what he has said before, referring for example to “lefty lawyers”, and to financially driven conspiracies to allow asylum seekers to enter Britain. Pretty textbook, really.
Anderson’s controversial views
Anderson’s views on poverty are well known, for example the claim that food bank users are just budgeting badly. Or his insistence that everybody in food poverty could live on 30p a day (a claim that has earnt him the nickname 30p Lee online). He claimed in a Westminster debate to have been able to track a family using his constituency food bank, who allegedly would also go to McDonalds “two or three times a week”. This is just lazy and simplistic stereotyping and demonising of people struggling with the cost of living.
He has suggested, without evidence, that people earning median household salaries were using foodbanks. He has spoken of his own experience as a child with his family growing vegetables, and put this forward as a ‘traditional value’ which others could emulate. At best, this is a tragically childish view of poverty, implying that everyone might have the means to grow their own vegetables instead of relying on social programmes. I have seen the term ‘traditional values’ used as a sinister dogwhistle time and time again.
Predictably he leapt to the defence of people protesting at hotels accommodating asylum seekers. There is more and more credible evidence that these protests have been co-opted and led by far-right white supremacist groups such as Patriotic Alternative (one such group currently getting media attention). The nature of this co-opting is relatively simple: in any town there will be a base level of disgruntlement at the migrant crisis – it is, after all, constantly talked about in right-wing news circles and the Tory party itself is effectively entrenched in an Australia-style ‘stop the small boats’ campaign. It takes very little effort for an organised far-right campaign – even from a relatively small group – to stoke local tensions on social media pages and start a substantial protest under the guise of ‘concerned locals’.
This kind of activity can escalate nationwide. This was the initial – apparently justified – fear of Hope Not Hate following the first such major protest in Liverpool. For Anderson to frame the entire series of protests as concerned locals is willful ignorance at best. It is predictable behaviour, because after all it serves the hard-right of the Conservative Party to inflame tensions against asylum seekers and refugees and point to the protests against them as the ‘public having their say’ (funny how this doesn’t work for strikes though). However that this downplaying of extreme elements of protests is dangerous, especially in combination with an already toxic Conservative discourse on the asylum system. We will see more of it before the next general election.
I can’t help but see the similarities between this unchallenged rhetoric from Anderson and the lessons not learnt in the United States following protests such as the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017. Donald Trump famously said there were “good people on both sides” following Charlottesville. Would Anderson even accept that there were good people on the other side?
The future trajectory for the Conservative Party
Anderson’s views are incredibly simplistic. To the point where in the previous paragraph I have probably given more analysis to them than Anderson would do. And I don’t believe that to be a wholly arrogant statement: it is becoming more and more mainstream within Conservative right wing politics to take complicated, multi-faceted issues (such as the cost of living, asylum, even now apparently the death penalty) and apply stunningly one dimensional rhetoric to them.
Cost-of-living crisis? Nah, just poor people who spend all their money on TVs and iPhones. Refugee crises? Nah, just shut the borders and send the Navy in. Progressive policies designed to help people? Nah, just cultural Marxist wokeness. This, allegedly, is a view of Anderson even shared within the Conservative Party – Sam Coates of Sky News has quoted a colleague of Anderson claiming he is “everything [that is] wrong with the Conservative brand presently” and that he “rejoices in deliberately provoking and making aggressive simplistic statements that fail to recognise the complexities of the issues facing the country”.
But that, unfortunately, is the fear. That this brand is Conservatism is where the party is heading. This absolutely isn’t the first time the Tories have leapt on culture war rhetoric for tactical reasons – that’s become commonplace over the past few years – but considering that culture war outrage bait for the right is effectively what Anderson has positioned his political platform to thrive on, his promotion must be seen as an endorsement of such a strategy.
Of course, don’t just take my word for it, you can hear it straight from Anderson’s mouth. He has recently openly called for the Tories to fight the next general election on “culture wars and trans debate”, admitting that the 2019 election landscape of Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn has now gone and they need to think something else up. This kind of statement casts light on the future evolution of the Tory party – one that has more in common with the American GOP in their willingness to avoid discussion of any actual policy that helps people, while stoking fear and spreading misinformation based on red-button themes.
This has always been part of the Conservative playbook, but with figures like Anderson – who are consistent in their delivery of misinformation, remain unaccountable and revel in the politics of spite – it’s another worrying step in the discourse-poisoning that the Tories began properly back in 2016. When a senior figure in the party – because that’s what Anderson is now – is openly communicating that his strategy for the 2024 general election is simply to stoke anger against refugees and trans people instead of promising putting forward policies which will make lives better, we really need to ask ourselves what we have come to as a nation.