Outside this year’s Tory conference in Manchester, 3,000 members of various health unions, mainly consultants and junior doctors, gathered. They set out their determination to keep up strike action throughout the autumn and winter if the Tories continue to refuse to negotiate with health workers.
It was an awkward reminder for Tory delegates of the rising tide of class struggle which their government has faced in the last 16 months, including from sections of society whose support the Tories once took for granted, but which the special crisis of British capitalism has steadily eroded.
The collective anger of the workers’ movement wasn’t the only nasty jolt of reality felt by the Tories in Manchester. While they were meeting, growing storms in the British and world economy, particularly in the bond market, underscored the reality of a Tory party increasingly hostage to the economic crisis of British capitalism.
Debates over when to introduce pre-election tax-cut giveaways for their rich mates had cold water poured over them when it was reported that the yield on 30-year government bonds reached a 25-year high in the light of persistently high inflation and interest rates, further pushing up the cost of newly issued government debt.
This year’s Tory conference was not only a battle to determine the policies on which the Tories would fight the next general election, but also an opportunity for various Tory factions to measure up their support within the party in preparation for the future beyond their pending defeat.
Home secretary Suella Braverman’s keynote speech viciously attacking refugees and trans people, perceived by many at the conference to be a pitch to the Tory membership for a future leadership bid, reportedly received the biggest applause and ovation of the entire conference.
Hanging around the fringes of the conference were the likes of Liz Truss who, at her ‘Great British Growth’ rally, called for cuts to corporation tax, and was accused by one Conservative source of ‘Corbynite Toryism’; and Nigel Farage, who Jacob Rees-Mogg suggested the Tory party should “roll out the red carpet” for if he ever wanted to rejoin!
Health secretary Steve Barclay’s attacks on trans people in the NHS were echoed by Sunak in his keynote speech. Having nothing to offer whatsoever for workers or young people, the Tory leadership is attempting to use the poison of divide and rule – the ‘culture wars’ as they like to call it – to whip up the Tory party base and squeeze out as many possible votes for their crumbling party at the next election.
Right-populist tub thumping doesn’t come without its cost in the Tory party however. Andrew Boff, Tory member and Chair of the London Assembly, had to be forcibly removed from the conference hall during Braverman’s speech for heckling. Braverman’s threats to withdraw Britain from the European Convention of Human Rights is a ‘red line’, in the words of Damian Green, chair of the One Nation Tory faction of around 80 MPs.
The fact that Sunak’s headline policy and offering to workers and young people was the scrapping of the HS2 project, the future of which was already in question, says a lot!
At the time of its scrapping, the cost of HS2 stood at over nine times more than the average cost internationally of high-speed rail lines, with hundreds of private companies sticking their hands in the honey pot. It was reported at the end of 2022 that, since September 2020, HS2’s four main private contractors had made 3,000 separate requests for either more money or time for the completion of projects from the government.
It is desperately hoped that the decision to scrap HS2 will salvage some support for the Tory party at the next election amongst communities, particularly in the north of England, who have seen virtually zero investment in local infrastructure in previous decades.
Sunak and his allies have made sure to make the best possible use of the opportunity HS2’s scrapping presents by talking up a supposed £36 billion which will be made available for investment in other local transport infrastructure in the North and around the country, including rail and road investment. Sunak cynically spoke about ending the focus on linking up major cities “at the exclusion of everywhere else”.
The only small problem facing the Tories is that no one believes a word they say! After 13 years of brutal austerity and collapsing living standards, it is pure delusion to hope that the scrapping of HS2 will be enough to turn the Tories’ electoral misfortunes. The latest Opinium poll shows the Conservatives unchanged on 29%, while Labour stands on 42%.
But like with every proposed policy ‘solution’ rolled out to try and tackle the impending electoral defeat facing the Tories at the next election, there is a price to be paid. This goes for Sunak’s announcement of the scrapping of HS2 as well. Tory West Midlands mayor Andy Street reflected the anger of a layer of Tory leaders when he threatened to resign, while Sunak’s ‘scorched-earth’ policy of selling off land acquired for the development of HS2 has generated even more anger.
HS2’s abandonment is yet another addition to the long list of humiliations to the prestige of British capitalism in recent years. In France, Germany and Italy, there exists 1,740, 1,030, and 834 miles of high-speed rail line respectively. Britain by contrast has only 71 miles. It is this further damage to Britain’s reputation internationally that a more farsighted section of the Tory leadership is angry about.
So hated are the Tories that Sunak in his conference speech was forced to present himself as a ‘change’ candidate, creating as much distance as possible between himself and the hated record of the Tory party in government over the last 13 years.
Sunak spent much of his conference speech attacking Keir Starmer for ‘doing and saying as little as possible and hoping no one notices.’ Ironically, both leaders of the main parties are fighting to present themselves as ‘not the Tories’!
The conference again demonstrated that the Tory Party no longer reliably represents the interests of British capitalism. However, despite the continued influence exerted by the populist right of the party on the Tory leadership, the capitalist class will not give up their historical vehicle of political representation – once the most successful pro-capitalist party in the world – without a serious struggle, indicating the battles that are likely to develop in the party beyond the general election.
But for anyone looking for an alternative to the pro-capitalist policies of the Tories, the Labour Party conference has only been further confirmation of the dyed-in-the-wool pro-big business character of the potentially next Labour-led government. Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves’ speech, which promised big business she will be an “iron chancellor” with “iron discipline” when it comes to public spending, earned her the official endorsement of former Bank of England governor Mark Carney.
Big business government
Meanwhile, there were more business leaders at this year’s conference than trade union leaders. Starmer, on Monday morning, told business leaders directly that “if we do come into government, you will be coming into government with us.” At the same time, conference has passed, with 67% in favour, further attacks on CLP members’ rights to influence policy at Labour’s National Policy Forum, and to clamp down on the right of Labour Party members to support bureaucratically expelled former Labour MPs like Jeremy Corbyn.
Unite the Union leader Sharon Graham moved a motion calling for “UK energy [to] be brought back into public ownership, starting with the National Grid’s electricity and gas networks”, to a standing ovation, and won a big majority of votes. But asked whether Labour’s election manifesto would abide by this vote, shadow business secretary Jonathan Reynolds replied with a flat “no”.
Both conferences drove home obvious conclusions about what will be needed to represent workers’ interests under a Starmer-led government. Including the need to take steps now towards the formation of a new workers’ party based on socialist policies to fight for what working-class and young people need against all the different shades of pro-capitalist political representatives.