The Tories are afraid. They are afraid of what lies immediately ahead in the Brexit negotiations. They are afraid that their party will be torn apart by the process. They are afraid of a general election and the potential for another surge in support for Jeremy Corbyn that could bring him to power.
Most of all, they are afraid of the mass discontent that exists within society after a decade of austerity. This is discontent which they already know can be expressed in elections and referendums, which they fear can explode on the streets and in the workplaces, and which they understand (if only faintly) is fuelling enormous questioning of the capitalist system – laying the basis for the development of mass support for socialist ideas.
Theresa May’s speech at this year’s Tory party conference began with one of the world’s most embarrassing attempts at distraction. Abba’s Dancing Queen was supposed to push her party’s war with itself, particularly Boris Johnson’s continued campaign to oust her and take the top job, off the front pages and into the back of people’s minds.
But the ‘meat’ of May’s speech also underlined her fragility and fear. The promise that austerity will end if – an almighty if – Britain obtains what the capitalist class would consider a ‘good’ deal from the EU, was an attempt to respond to the yearning for an alternative.
The announcement rings hollow. May’s supposed end of austerity does not involve undoing what she sickeningly termed the “last eight years of progress”. In other words, even if her pledge were actually enacted, it would only mean a continuation of the current misery.
May should try talking about the end of austerity to a family losing £200 a month because of universal credit – an issue touched on in Them and Us in this issue of the Socialist.
She should tell it to those suffering the impact of local government cuts. Because, while the prime minister used her conference speech to talk about the supposed end of austerity, new figures detailing her chancellor’s devastating planned cuts to local government were emerging. He means to take another £1.3 billion from council services in the next twelve months.
Disgracefully, many of these cuts are set to be implemented by Blairite-run Labour councils. Jeremy Corbyn should respond to this news with a bold demand on all Labour councillors to stand up to this avalanche and refuse to implement another penny’s worth of cuts.
May’s promise to ‘end austerity’, while hollow, in a sense makes this even more imperative. Labour must prove it offers more than fine words about ending cuts, especially when the Tories appear to echo these words themselves.
In a similar way, May’s pledge to lift the cap on local councils borrowing money to build homes should also act as a spur to action for Labour councillors. They should immediately draw up plans to use reserves and all available borrowing powers to begin a mass programme of council-house building based on meeting the needs of the population.
Corbyn should pledge that any council which takes such measures would see its funding fully restored on day one of a Labour government.
Looming large over the whole Tory conference was the dark storm cloud of Brexit. In a leadership-bid-style speech, Johnson called on May to “chuck Chequers”. The prime minister reportedly faced boos from the party’s National Conservative Convention – the body representing the volunteer officers who run local Tory associations – when she addressed them to make the case for the plan.
But even before she arrived at the conference, the Chequers plan, in its original form, was all but dead. In particular, the harsh rebuke May received from European leaders when they met in Saltzburg had rendered this particular attempt at a compromise null and void. Now, the EU has upped the ante by drawing up tough contingency measures that it threatens will be brought in in the event of a no-deal Brexit. If enacted, these would mean huge disruption, including flight cancellations and what would likely be very serious hold ups at UK ports.
From the point of view of the capitalist class, both in Britain and Europe, by far the most desirable outcome would be the agreement of a Norway-style model or soft Brexit. Britain would continue its membership of the Single Market and Customs Union – including accepting all its neoliberal rules – continuing to hand over billions of pounds to the EU for the privilege.
In a hint that May might, in her desperation, attempt to pass such a deal by looking to Labour’s right-wing majority in parliament for support, her speech included an almost nostalgic tribute to the party’s Blairite past:
“We all remember what the Labour Party used to be… Today, when I look across at the opposition benches, I can still see that Labour Party… Their faces stare blankly out from the rows behind, while another party occupies prime position: the Jeremy Corbyn Party.”
Here, May exposed the truth. The Socialist Party’s description of Labour as ‘two parties in one’ is no exaggeration. Elsewhere in this issue, we respond to the news that super-rich ‘investors’ are already taking money out of the country, citing not the uncertainty of Brexit, but the threat of a Corbyn-led government as their primary motivation.
The Tory party conference demonstrated yet again the utter fragility of May’s government. The threat by the Democratic Unionist Party to ‘pull the plug’ should any proposal for a customs border along the Irish Sea be agreed, has added to the uncertainty.
Corbyn, along with the trade union movement, should be calling for mass action – including protests, strikes and demonstrations – demanding a general election now.
And he and John McDonnell must make it clear that it will not be possible for a Corbyn-led Labour government to win the support of the capitalist class, along with its Blairite representatives, except on the basis of wholesale capitulation to the ‘logic’ of the capitalist system.
Opposite this editorial in our print edition, our article details the environmental catastrophe facing humanity on the basis of the continuation of capitalism.
Perhaps more starkly than anything, this underlines the need for Corbyn to urgently mobilise his supporters to kick the representatives of this crisis-ridden system out of Labour. It underlines the need to boldly make the case for socialist change.
The Tory party is right to be fearful. Enormous anger exists in society. There is huge hunger for an alternative. Now, the task facing Jeremy Corbyn and the trade union movement is to bring that anger and that hunger out from under the surface – to mobilise a mass working-class force capable of fighting to bring down the Tories and to transform society along socialist lines.