Britain: Covid and economic crisis

Boris Johnson (photo Chatham House/CC)

Just six months ago, Boris Johnson swanned into office as British Prime Minister, with the biggest Tory parliamentary majority since 1987. The Socialist newspaper, in our special edition produced the day after the general election, pointed out that, “the seeming strength of Johnson’s government will be shattered by coming events.”

We went on to explain that Maggie Thatcher’s 1987 election victory was followed within months by “the campaign of mass non-payment against the poll tax, led by Militant, now the Socialist Party” which forced Thatcher’s resignation in 1990.

We explained that “today the Tory Party is far weaker than it was then. It is bitterly divided, and Johnson has only been able to win by distancing himself from his own party, using populist rhetoric to falsely claim he is standing up for ‘the people’. This was a ‘snapshot’, a very ephemeral result, with even Johnson having to acknowledge workers had only lent him their votes.”

Uprising

Even at the start of the Covid lockdown, this would have seemed far-fetched to many, with Johnson riding high in the polls, and a widespread mood to unite behind the government’s strategy to deal with the virus. Two months on and the world is transformed. Many of the elements fuelling the gigantic uprising convulsing the US are also present here.

The consequences of years of austerity have been laid bare by the pandemic. It is not a coincidence that the major world powers with the highest death rates – Britain and the US – are also the countries with the highest levels of poverty and inequality, where neoliberal capitalist policies have gone furthest.

As in the US, the death rates from the virus are highest in the poorest areas, often with large concentrations of workers from a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) background. The developing economic crisis is already devastating the lives of millions of working-class people. Every section of the working class is affected, but those who are in the most precarious work will suffer most. That includes many BAME workers, and also the young. It is estimated that a third of 18-24-year-olds have already lost their jobs or have been furloughed.

As a result of its woeful handling of the pandemic, support for the government has been on the slide for weeks, but the Cummings affair has marked a qualitative change. Lockdown, it has turned out, doesn’t apply to the elite! Johnson’s wholehearted defence of the breaking of the lockdown rules by his special advisor, Dominic Cummings, has enraged the population.

One Opinium poll showed that 81% of voters think he broke the rules, and even 52% of Tory voters think he should resign. At the end of March, the Tory lead over Labour stood at 26 points, now it has plummeted to four points – dropping eight points in one week, the largest weekly plunge ever recorded.

More than 100 Tory MPs, the majority of backbenchers, have publicly criticised Cummings – reflecting the avalanche of complaints they have had from their constituents. Whatever happens now, Johnson’s reputation has suffered a battering in the eyes of the majority of the population.

In an inept attempt to defend Cummings, Charles Walker, vice-chair of the Tory backbench 1922 committee, actually expressed the fears of the capitalist class of the rage that will develop against their system: “If people are very angry at the actions of Dominic Cummings, then that anger is only a harbinger of the greater rage to come when the forthcoming recession, or heaven forbid depression, starts to bite.”

The problem for the capitalist class, however, is that the Cummings affair is a new demonstration of the dysfunctional character of the Tory party, and how weak and unreliable a tool it is for defending their interests when the rage ‘starts to bite’. Traditionally, when an unelected political advisor becomes a subject of controversy, they are sacked or resign in short order. Only enormous arrogance can have led Johnson to imagine that he could defy the norms, and that the result of Cummings telling his tall tale in an hour-long press conference would be to convince, rather than enrage, the population.

Not normal

That Johnson was allowed to go ahead with such a plan reflects that this is not a ‘normal’ Tory government, subject to the control of party grandees, and – through them – the capitalist class. As the Economist magazine put it, “if the leadership of the Conservative party were still determined by the magic circle of establishment grandees who ruled it in the 1950s, rather than the 150,000 or so Daily Telegraph readers who make up the party’s membership, [Johnson] would still be lounging on the backbenches.”

Johnson is a right-wing populist, elected as leader by the shrinking and aged membership of the Tory Party. He won the general election by posing as standing for the ‘little people against the elite’ – a lie that has now been clearly shattered.

The party he leads has a shallow social base and is in a state of disintegration, with many deeply divided factions, reflecting at base the crisis of British capitalism. Post-general election, the cracks were briefly papered over, but they never went away.

Now, faced with the worst economic crisis for their system since the 1930s, the fissures are bound to reopen as debate rages on how to deal with insoluble problems. These include mass unemployment, major corporations only propped up by government money, spiralling state debts, and – above all – the mass movements that will develop in opposition to the misery created by capitalism.

The scale of the current crisis means that one issue – responsible for warfare in the Tory party over decades – has been temporarily hidden. Brexit, however, is now going to come back to the fore. This issue clearly demonstrates Johnson’s unreliability for the capitalist class.

The working-class vote for Brexit four years ago was, at base, a cry of rage against capitalist austerity. However, given the absence of a mass force putting a socialist, internationalist case for Brexit, the vacuum was partly filled by the nationalist ‘little Englanders’, not least the pro-Brexit wing of the Tory party. The majority of the capitalist class, however, would have preferred to remain in the EU as the best means to maximise their profits.

Even when Johnson won the general election with the slogan ‘get Brexit done’, big sections of the capitalist elite still hoped that he would use his mandate to negotiate a deal which kept Britain closely aligned to the EU. Those hopes are now fading.

Johnson is currently insistent that the transition period will not be extended beyond the end of 2020, making negotiating any comprehensive deal highly unlikely, and any deal at all difficult.

This month will see another round of talks, followed by the 1 July deadline for extending the transition period. The gap between the two sides is huge. For the EU, the room to make concessions to Johnson is more limited than ever.

The current world economic crisis has massively increased the centrifugal forces in the EU, threatening to fracture it all together, and making it very dangerous to bend too far to the demands of the only country to have already gone.

It is not excluded Johnson could be forced to ask for an extension even after the 1 July deadline. Despite the legal obstacles of doing so requiring a new treaty, the institutions of the EU would be likely to try and assist in order to prevent Britain crashing out of the EU economic area onto World Trade Organisation terms. Nonetheless, the possibility of Britain and the EU not reaching an agreement is growing.

Johnson undoubtedly hopes that the negative economic consequences of his approach to Brexit will be lost in the greater crisis of British capitalism. In reality, however, it would further exacerbate the crisis, possibly dramatically. The major world powers are reacting to the crisis by increasing trade barriers. Britain – a second-rate power outside the EU with no significant trade deals – is bound to be badly squeezed as a result.

Despite the change in the parliamentary Tory party, there are still more than 130 Tory MPs who supported remain in the referendum. The majority of the capitalist class will be exerting huge pressure on them to try to force the Tory party to change course. Given the growing unpopularity of Johnson, they may also see opportunities to replace him with a more reliable Tory leader.

Starmer’s Labour

At the same time, with their Tory ‘first-team’ in such a mess, and anger growing against the government, the capitalist elite will also be looking for a safe second team to act in their interests if the Tories are forced out.

Keir Starmer’s election as Labour leader marks a big step forward for the capitalist class in that regard. The Labour NEC’s endorsement of Starmer’s choice for general secretary is a further tightening of the grip of the pro-capitalist wing of the party. David Evans is an open Blairite who dedicated himself to undermining the role of the unions when he was an assistant general secretary of the party in the late 1990s (see Blairite general secretary elected – Starmer’s takeover of Labour Party consolidated).

The working-class majority is, therefore, facing an unprecedented assault on their lives and living standards with no mass political voice representing them. Already – in the few months of the Covid crisis – trade union membership has soared as workers have looked to collective organisation as the best means to defend their interests.

As the economic, social and political crisis of capitalism develops, it is also urgent that the working class starts to build a mass party that fights against the Tory government and the capitalist system it defends and demands a democratic socialist alternative that can meet the needs of all.

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June 2020
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