Britain: The end of the Tories?

The Tories are on the ropes: publicly humiliated at their conference, precariously holding onto power, split over Europe and split on Theresa May’s leadership. Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn continues to further his position and policies in Labour. Peter Taaffe looks at the significance of their contrasting fortunes.

There could not be a greater contrast between the recent conferences of Britain’s two main political parties, Labour and the Tories. At Labour’s conference, party leader Jeremy Corbyn – ‘defeated’ in the general election in June yet widely hailed as the real winner because of Labour’s ‘unexpected’ recovery – bestrode the stage to general acclamation and applause.

At the Tory party conference, Theresa May, the nominal election winner and still prime minister, was like a tortured animal at bay, attacked from all sides, particularly by Boris Johnson, her main rival for the crown. This culminated in a public relations disaster when her keynote speech, meant to rally the demoralised Tory troops, was interrupted by a comedian who presented her with a sacking notice, a P45 form! May then proceeded to lose her voice, which can happen to any public speaker, but in her case served to emphasise the disarray and the feeling of doom and defeatism in Tory ranks.

At the Labour conference, on the other hand, erstwhile enemies of Corbyn from the right of the party – like deputy leader Tom Watson bedecked with an ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn!’ scarf – nauseatingly and hypocritically sang the same refrain along with delegates. Watson was joined by another formerly implacable opponent of Corbyn, Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee. She performed an incredible volte face together with others on the Labour right.

Labour’s ‘civil war’ appears to have been temporarily frozen at the top, although not at the local, council level or within the party as a whole. Its Tory equivalent, however, has greatly intensified following their conference. Parliamentary cant, that special form of British ruling class hypocrisy, used to conceal their political divisions from the working class, has long been abandoned by the Tories. The fault lines have widened under the severe blows of the enduring economic crisis and have now been accentuated by Europe and Brexit.

Within days of the conference, former Tory party chairman Grant Shapps, an outrider for Boris Johnson’s leadership ambitions, claimed the backing of 30 MPs wanting prime minister May to go. This prompted Tory MP Nadine Dorries to respond with unprecedented venom: “Grant Shapps thinks he’s going down in history as the man who handed Mrs May the pearl-handled revolver. He got one thing right: he’s going down”! The alligator versus the crocodile. Tory luminary Michael Heseltine, on the europhile wing of the party, described Johnson as “phoney and duplicitous” because of his pro-Brexit position.

Tory party managers seek to console themselves that the ‘conference was dour but we got through it’. But there is now a widespread expectation, even among the bourgeois, that May is unlikely to hold on as prime minister. Her only strength lies in the lack of an immediate alternative. She has only been able to cling to power for the time being because there is no one yet capable of taking up the reins from within her rotted, enfeebled and out of touch party.

Among the main contenders for the job, Johnson’s star has also diminished with his display of naked personal ambition and his ham-fisted buffoonery on full display at the Tory conference. On a par with Donald Trump’s blundering ‘lack of diplomacy’, with crass insensitivity Johnson even suggested that the Libyan city of Sirte could become a tourist attraction, ‘once the bodies have been cleared’ from the beaches.

Moreover, the British embassy in Moscow, which as foreign minister he is supposed to be responsible for, was reported in the Financial Times to have been alarmed by a proposed 48-hour visit by Johnson. The embassy feared it would inevitably lead to gaffes and diplomatic incidents because Johnson could only be controlled when he was asleep – and that was just eight hours! His electability has also been questioned because he only managed third place in elections for rector at Edinburgh University.

Political earthquakes

Never has the British ruling class confronted such a major economic, social or political crisis with its main and formerly all-powerful political instrument, split, weakened and facing possible meltdown. The tide of history is against them. The effects of Brexit, in particular, have opened up the greatest chasm in the Tory party since the divisions over the Corn Laws in the early 19th century. The outcome of the battle on this issue poses the real possibility that the Tory party could disintegrate and effectively disappear from the political map, just as the Christian Democrats did in Italy in the 1990s.

The colossal political effects of the enduring crisis of capitalism and the weakening and possible disintegration of those parties which defend and cling to a failed system is finally being felt in Britain and elsewhere. This is something that the Socialist Party consistently argued would develop at a certain stage.

Even a cursory reading of Socialism Today would show that we pointed towards the political earthquakes of the Scottish independence referendum and Brexit as resulting from the delayed aftershocks of the 2007-08 world economic crisis. The upheavals in Spain over the Catalonian independence referendum also finds its roots in the effects of this crisis, still burdened as the country is with 25% unemployment in Catalonia and the Spanish state. Jeremy Corbyn echoed this idea in his Labour Party conference speech when he suggested that 2017 could be the year when the political consequences of the fallout of 2007-08 are fully felt.

As a result of the huge objective change in the situation, the Socialist Party was among the few arguing that Corbyn could win or come very close if he was to present a clear fighting socialist alternative in the general election. And this is what Corbyn did with his bold demands on tuition fees and the nationalisation of some industries. This initiated a big recovery in Labour’s vote, including a massive ‘youthquake’ which, had the election campaign carried on for two weeks longer, would probably have seen Corbyn in 10 Downing Street already, as John McDonnell argued.

Polls, including the most important one of all, the general election, indicate that there has been a big swing among the young, teenagers and those aged between 20 and 30, against the Tories and for Corbyn. Even those over 40 have begun to travel in the same direction. The Tories enjoy majority support only among the over 60s. Just 15% of young people now back the Tories.

A failed system

Theresa May, in turn, has sought to borrow politically from Corbyn, immediately after she became prime minister and also in that ill-fated conference speech. If not an anti-capitalist, she posed as a critic of some ‘regrettable’ aspects of capitalism. This was an echo of a previous Tory prime minister, Edward Heath, when he denounced the ‘unacceptable face of capitalism’ because of the growing discontent with the system in the early 1970s.

However, for Heath and now May, this was synthetic and temporary. Heath went on to brutally confront the miners and the labour movement, even at one time promising to inflict a severe defeat on the working class through provoking a general strike. His subsequent trial of strength with the miners and the working class led to the ‘three-day week’. This, in turn, led to a general election in which he and the Tories were defeated!

After her initial rhetorical flourish against ‘inequality’, May also continued to attack the rights and conditions of working people, particularly the poor. May and her cabinet of millionaires ratcheted up the vicious austerity of her predecessor David Cameron and his chancellor George Osborne.

Nonetheless, under siege at the Tory conference and in the aftermath of the searing Grenfell tower disaster, she resorted to a further bout of verbal radicalism. She promised the reintroduction of council house building – effectively destroyed by Margaret Thatcher and subsequent governments. In reality, this amounts to a promise of an extra 5,000 dwellings a year! This would not scratch the surface of what is, alongside the urgent need for wage increases, probably the most pressing social problem in Britain.

That also applies internationally, with homelessness and evictions growing inexorably worldwide. In the US, for instance, an incredible 2.7 million renters were evicted last year. Thousands could follow suit in Britain as a consequence of the infamous so-called ‘universal credit’ benefits system. The army of homelessness, evident in all the major cities of Britain, will be greatly increased by this measure. Even Tory MPs have warned and pleaded with May to withdraw, delay or tone down this policy but she has remained flint-faced and continues to implement it.

Thatcher and the Tories’ ‘property-owning democracy’ has failed abysmally. Tory MP George Freeman said the housing crisis is at the crux of the Conservatives’ problem with younger voters: “Why would you support capitalism if you have no prospect of owning any capital?” The ‘right to buy’ – to own a house – is completely out of the reach of most young people. Wages are so low for young people that the ‘graduate precariat’, even those with good degrees, will be forced economically and socially into the ranks of the working class with miserable wages and often part-time jobs.

Rising discontent

There is, therefore, a general radicalisation of working people, particularly youth, who now enthusiastically show their support for an anti-capitalist programme and are open to socialist ideas. The elements of this programme are shown in the mass support for rent controls which Jeremy Corbyn embraced at the Labour Party conference. This is combined with the recognition now that Thatcher’s programme effectively to smash council house building is over. The authoritative Institute of British Architects, among many others, has added its voice to the call for ‘a radical programme of council house building’.

In education, head teachers have warned parents that there will be no more money in the kitty for spending on schools, let alone an increase in teachers’ pay. This has provoked the trade unions into threatening an education strike in the next period. And, despite the noises from May, no real concessions on university tuition fees are likely unless the students and their organisation, the NUS, mobilise for national demonstrations and the calling of a student strike. If they don’t do it, others will organise from below to do so.

The iniquitous 6% interest on student loans remains in place. This will fuel the already mass discontent of students evident in the general election and its aftermath with a massive swing towards Corbyn and Labour. Even former Tory minister David Willetts has warned that the Tories could lose the youth vote ‘for good’.

May at the Tory party conference sought to inspire the dispirited delegates with what she called the ‘British dream’ – a British nightmare more like! The International Monetary Fund punctured her rosy scenario. In its twice-yearly World Economic Outlook, the IMF predicts 11.5% growth in Greece over the next five years, but only 10.3% in Britain. The IMF pointed out that the British economy has the lowest growth rate in the OECD.

The Tories promised to slash the budget deficit through savage attacks on the working class. They have kept at least one part of this ‘bargain’ by raining down attacks on working people. But not the other: the budget deficit has actually grown. Treasury officials are predicting a ‘bloodbath’ as two thirds of a £26 billion headroom to ease public finances through Brexit has been wiped out by poor growth and productivity figures.

Britain’s waning power

On top of this are the huge problems posed for British capitalism by Brexit. This is not just a matter of bald economics but goes to the heart of the reasons for the bitter conflict in the Tory party. That is, the failure of British imperialism and its political representatives to reconcile themselves to its long-term decline and the loss of influence on the world stage including in Europe. It is no longer capable of exercising a balance of power on the continent of Europe.

On the contrary, the economic might of Germany, with Emmanuel Macron’s France in tow, allows it to call the shots and even to pursue a kind of balance by mobilising the rest of the European Union against Britain. This decline was underlined recently by a visit to Britain from the Chinese navy, now the second strongest in the world after the US. Long gone is the time when British gunboats sailed up the Yangtze and fired on the Chinese, as in the revolution in 1926. Now the Chinese sail up the Thames, served up cocktails by their British counterparts!

The bitter splits on Europe within the Tory party have lasted for almost three decades, but have now entered a decisive phase. This issue helped to unseat Thatcher, although her intransigence on the poll tax was a greater immediate factor. John Major was also paralysed by the eurosceptic Tory ‘bastards’ and he was eventually defeated in the 1997 election. The EU referendum result, as we know, brought down David Cameron and the same issue threatens May and any successor who may emerge within the Tory party.

Sections of the bourgeois, particularly in the financial sector and industry, fear that the political deadlock in the Tory party could result in a ‘hard’ Brexit in which they are effectively locked out of Europe with no viable economic alternative. The Tories hoped that Trump would ride to their rescue through a ‘beautiful agreement’ on trade. But this has been shattered by his ‘America first’ policy, and the threat of sanctions against the Bombardier company, whose Belfast factory supplies the wings to Canadian aircraft in competition with Boeing in the US market.

If Trump’s threat is made good it could result in thousands of lost jobs in Northern Ireland in the very constituencies of Democratic Unionist Party’s MPs. The DUP is presently propping up the May government but could withdraw its support if Bombardier jobs go. This could result in the collapse of the government. This may not happen, some compromise could be arrived at, but it indicates the extremely precarious position of May’s government which could fall at any time.

A Corbyn-led government

The great majority of the British bourgeois are desperate to seek an accommodation with the EU which would allow an uneasy but nevertheless continued economic relationship, particularly with the ‘single market’. They are prepared to consider all, even risky alternatives. Some are even toying with the idea of an eventual accommodation with a Corbyn-led government which, given the political mood in Britain, they may not be able to avoid in any case.
Others, probably the majority at this the stage, fear and are likely to oppose what the Tory chancellor Philip Hammond has called the ‘neo-Marxist’ Jeremy Corbyn leadership of the Labour Party. They were alarmed by Corbyn’s radical election manifesto and correctly saw it as a statement of intent. The promise to abolish tuition fees had a big effect but the intention to take back into public ownership energy, railways and Royal Mail also drew popular support. These, in truth, were mildly social-democratic measures which are not uncommon in other European countries.

In Britain, however, under Thatcher in particular – historically associated with the initiation of the worldwide neoliberal counter-revolution – these proposals for even partial nationalisation have a particular resonance: the appetite grows with eating. A Corbyn-led Labour government, elected against the background of the weakened economic foundations of British capitalism and possibly facing a new world crisis in the near future, would experience huge pressures exerted by the working class to go further than this partial programme and take over other failing industries.

Something similar happened in Chile in 1973. Salvador Allende’s government was compelled by mass pressure, after the defeat of an attempted counter-revolution in June 1973, to take over 40% of the Chilean economy. In the Portuguese revolution of 1974-75, also following a failed right-wing coup, 70% of industry was taken over.

Clearly conscious of this and taking into account the huge pressures which will be brought to bear, John McDonnell and his team of advisers, we are told, are already rehearsing scenarios of how to confront the attempt of ‘capital, domestic and foreign’ to ‘cripple a Corbyn government’. Paul Mason, now a Labour adviser, says that a Corbyn-led government would face a ‘Stalingrad-type’ situation. One thing is certain: a Corbyn-led government with radical policies is seen as a threat to British capitalism.

McDonnell has been touring the City of London seeking advice from financiers, former Labour government ministers and others on how to manage this expected situation. He has not excluded even consulting Tony Blair on how to avoid a confrontation with capital. The advice from this quarter would undoubtedly be to ‘crawl on your belly like I did before the power of capitalism and its demands’, and to abandon any semblance of a radical socialist programme.

John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn are correct to be concerned about the resistance they and a Labour government will inevitably meet. But they are seeking advice from the wrong quarter. It is to the labour movement and its experiences they should look towards, both in Britain and internationally.

In Greece, the Syriza government led by Alexis Tsipras, memorably declared that ‘hope is coming’ upon its election victory in January 2015. However, hope for the working class and the great majority of the Greek people was dashed as this very same government, raised to power on the backs of the masses, capitulated to the capitalist troika: the European Commission, European Central Bank and IMF. This paved the way for the mass suffering and immiseration of the working class because Tsipras refused to stand up to the Greek and European capitalists.

By rejecting further austerity, nationalising the banks under democratic workers’ control and management, and then appealing to the European working class to join the Greek workers in a democratic, socialist, confederation of Europe, Tsipras could have ignited revolution throughout the continent. In the first instance, the Greek workers would have undoubtedly been joined by the working class of Spain – as the current explosive events demonstrate – by Portuguese workers and others.

A risky option

So fluid and uncertain is the situation in Britain, and so incapable is the present government of echoing the demands of the bourgeois, that they may conclude that a Corbyn government, risky as it is, remains the only viable option. They hope that they would be able to exercise control over it through the economy – and particularly through the pro-capitalist ‘fifth column’, the Labour right wing, still represented by the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

The Tory party is well-nigh broken and probably irretrievably split. The half-empty gathering in Manchester exposed a hollowed out, largely older party with an average age of over 70. The Tories claim a membership of 150,000 but some reports suggest no more than 40,000 in reality. It is no longer the ‘most successful bourgeois party in Europe’ but a historic relic.

Important sections of the capitalist ruling class therefore calculate that, through a fudge, a compromise agreement by a Corbyn government on the issue of the ‘free movement of labour and capital’ and access to the ‘single market’, the worst effects of a hard Brexit can be nullified. This is the probable explanation – together with the desperate state of the Liberal Democrats – behind former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg’s half-serious proposal in a recent Observer article for a form of mass ‘entrism’ of ‘Remainers’ into the Labour Party (and also, as an afterthought, into the Tory party, as well!). After all, isn’t this what Blair did in transforming Labour into a vehicle for pro-capitalist policies? This really would be a right-wing, pro-capitalist ‘party within a party’.

The expulsions from Labour of supporters of Militant, the forerunner of the Socialist Party, were not primarily organisational but political. We fought for socialist policies, such as rent controls, a real living wage and, in particular, the nationalisation of failing industries – the very policies which guaranteed great success for Jeremy Corbyn in the two leadership election contests and in the general election. In fact, without Clegg and his supporters joining, there are already a number of parties within the Labour party, including Progress and the Co-operative Party, as well as on the ‘left’, Momentum.

Socialism v capitalism

In the light of this there can be no genuine, principled objection to the Socialist Party’s proposals to reconfigure the Labour Party into a democratic federation of all left-wing forces, including the Socialist Party, which are prepared to fight for a socialist future for the working class.

The panicky and noisy campaign launched by Hammond and the ruling class at the Tories’ conference in favour of capitalism and attacking socialism cannot succeed. The daily reality of millions of the system’s failure to guarantee the basics of decent housing, health, food, education and gainful employment has provoked a crisis of legitimacy in the system. Capitalism cannot abolish inequality because it is built into its very foundations, the exploitation of the labour power of the working class.

Labour right-wingers are in the process of accommodating themselves to Corbyn but remain conduits for the pressure of capitalism inside the Labour Party. Ultimately, they reflect the interests of the bosses, as did those right-wing Labour MPs who remained with the party after the split of 1931. Their task then was to prevent Labour from shifting ‘too far’ towards the left.

This role is played today by right-wing Labour MPs like Chuka Umuna and others who have already formed an alliance with sections of the Liberal Democrats and even some ‘centrist’ Tories on the issues of the single market, free movement, etc. If all else fails and Labour swings further to the left, they could decide to gamble on a new ‘centre’ grouping or party, as Macron did in France.

They must be countered, not by pausing or watering down the programme or by retreats, but by pushing the Corbyn revolution forward even more. This is a programmatic task: the demand to take over the major monopolies on a democratic socialist basis. It also involves further organisational changes: a new Labour Party constitution launched by Jeremy Corbyn which enshrines mandatory reselection, for a political confrontation with the right wing, and the opening up of the party to all forces who wish to continue the fight for socialism in Britain.

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October 2017