Opening shots of next election
Paul Demarty looks at Theresa May’s conversion to red Toryism
This year’s Conservative Partyconference was marked most clearly by two events - the one, Theresa May’s ‘keynote’ address on October 5; and the other, Philip Hammond’s speech on the economy.
As shown by May’s “Change is going to come” speech, the Tories are not just aiming to snatch the votes of a rapidly sinking UK Independence Party. She wants to drive deep into traditional Labour territory. We are “truly the party of the workers, the party of the NHS, the party of public servants”, she told conference. Rounding on exploitative bosses, she promised to clamp down on tax-dodgers.
Emphasising her shift to the post-Brexit “new centre ground”, she named Clement Attlee, alongside Margaret Thatcher, Winston Churchill and Benjamin Disraeli, as a prime minister who had changed Britain for the better. Plans for new grammar schools neatly fit into her call for a “great meritocracy” based on the values of “fairness and opportunity”. May also rounded on Labour - the “new nasty party”. She derided Jeremy Corbyn for presiding over a party which is full of anti-Semites, hate-mongers and left fanatics out to ruin the careers of decent MPs.
We also repeatedly heard mention of the “working class” - no longer the ‘hard working families’ trope borrowed from over the Atlantic. “It was not the wealthy who made the biggest sacrifices after the financial crisis: it was ordinary working class families,” she said. Rhetorically turning on the elite and their condescension, May also claimed to be on the same side as “ordinary working class people”.
Obviously we have seen the opening shots of the forthcoming general election campaign. The calculation must be that the Tories will win a truly massive parliamentary majority, while reducing Labour to a mere rump.
On the opening day, May declared that the UK’s exit from the European Union would formally begin with the introduction, in next spring’s queen’s speech, of a Great Repeal Bill, which will apparently return Britain to its lost status as a “sovereign and independent country”. Some kind of announcement was inevitable, but debate in the British establishment has polarised around the question of ‘soft’ versus ‘hard’ Brexit, and May’s most significant impact was in nudging towards the latter, giving succour to the ‘hards’ to her right, and plunging the Cameroon die-hards further into dejected misery.
The message May has learnt from the Brexit vote is to capture the large anti-migrant section of the electorate: “We are not leaving the EU only to give up control of immigration again. And we are not leaving only to return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.” The tyranny of the straight banana, or whatever it is this week, is over.
And it is in the context of Brexit that we turn to Hammond. His speech was extraordinary in its emptiness. Much ink has been spilled on his apparently pathological dullness - the fluffed jokes, the bland expression - but the more remarkable factor is that he seems to have no ideas at all. His speech was basically the world’s slowest shrug. Brexit could cause some issues; but, not to worry, Phil would be “pragmatic”. He formally abandoned any commitment to George Osborne’s budget targets, to which the only adequate response is a sarcastic ‘no shit’: even before the Brexit vote saw Osborne destroyed, in tragic-heroic fashion, by his own short-termism, his endlessly deferred balancing of the books was little more than a bad joke by 2015 - a wonderful piece of political vapourware. The idea that any chancellor would enter into several years of sustained turbulence without fiscal room for manoeuvre is straightforwardly fanciful.
Yet ... that was kind of it (bar the usual empty noise about housebuilding, for which a few billion will be siphoned out of the public purse into the pockets of developers).
In response to all this excitement, the markets predictably threw a wobbly. The pound plunged to near its lowest points since June. More and more companies have flagged up the possibility of moving out of Britain. The Bank of England continues to prop up sterling, but is running out of the means to do so. Moving in the opposite direction to boost exports is just about conceivable and occasionally mooted in the business pages. But that would be difficult, given the decay of the manufacturing base during the decades since Thatcher’s big bang and the total dominance of finance capital in this country.
In reality, however, the ‘softs’ have reasons to be cheerful. “Let me be clear”, says May - but the whole thing is, on closer examination, still very vague. We are reminded - alas! - of Donald Trump’s habit of making outlandish promises, and deflecting any scepticism with handwaving chatter about his personal negotiating skills. The “Great Repeal Bill”, as launched, will not overnight terminate Britain’s relationship with the European Union: it will commit Britain to finding a new relationship with the EU, without being able to spell out what that relationship is. In the interim, rather beautifully, it will simply transmute wholesale the whole gamut of ‘Brussels red tape’ into British law, and allow future governments to try and pick it apart. It will have to be drawn very carefully indeed to avoid getting bogged down in trench warfare with the Lords and suchlike.
As for article 50, at the end of two years, an extension can be agreed by all remaining member-states, but getting that kind of consensus, in these fractious times, is very difficult indeed. The result is that the EU powers are in a very strong negotiating position relative to Britain: as soon as article 50 is triggered, the countdown is on, at the end of which Britain will be dumped rudely out of the customs union and free trade zone, with huge long-term damage to the economy - unless it manages to get a deal, and a deal that can be sold to all EU member-states. If I was a British prime minister with my head screwed on, I would be begging for any deal whatsoever by the end of that period; nor would I be in any great hurry to start the process.
But even March is a fair old distance away; and distance means wriggle room. We note more whispers about an early election, which, apart from being a very good idea from the Tory point of view (given that the Labour Party is crippled by endless rightwing sabotage), is a particularly juicy delaying tactic - the election will raise no eyebrows if it is held in the somewhat traditional month of May, nor will delaying any ‘big decisions’ until after the votes are counted be much of a surprise. If things do not change quickly on the opposition benches, of course, May will be elected with a crushing majority; this will rob her of any further excuses, but also provide her with the parliamentary ballast needed to see off a ‘hard’ Brexiteer rebellion down the road.
In the interim, keep bashing away on the issue of immigration. Step forward, Amber Rudd, May’s replacement at the home office, to throw some meat to the mob; there will be a sharp tightening in the awarding of student visas; there are vague noises about restricting various rights for family members of students to work to some universities and not others; there is a pledge (as yet empty of details) to make sure employers only get overseas labour when the British cannot fulfil the need themselves. All of this, naturally, is constrained by the terms of EU membership until Brexit is actually achieved, some time between two and a half years from now and the heat death of the universe. Good luck with all that, Amber.
Rudd is not the only one suffering from a bad case of the business-as-usuals, however. Outside the conference hall, there was the regulation People’s Assembly protest, which claimed 10,000 attendees, though our spies wonder if that might be a touch generous.
The protest was billed as an option to “unwelcome the Tories” to Birmingham, and we must first of all enter in our own pro forma statement that attending such a protest represents at least some level of engagement with progressive politics, preferable to giving up in exhaustion or taking up with the right. Yet we must ask the question: what on earth is this outing for?
That is a rhetorical-soundingquestion, but actually needs to be answered, and can be answered by first of all noting that such events do not fall out of the sky, but are organised and built up in the localities by concrete individuals and groups. The PA serves mainly to give such individuals and groups a common flag of convenience, without substantially cohering them; thus it falls to the ‘usual suspects’ (willing left activists) to do the heavy lifting, and to identify most closely with the thing as a whole. In the case of the PA, primary among these are Counterfire and the organisation from which it sprang, the Socialist Workers Party, as well as the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain.
For those in the SWP tradition, there is something fundamentally problematic about electoral politics, for it deflects (in those comrades’ view) the basic conflict between state and masses, employer and employed; preferable, instead, to build up the industrial struggle in workplaces and protest movements of one sort and another. Counterfire happens to be the particular tentacle of the SWP tradition to have founded the PA, but the SWP itself has had its own contenders in the fight for official ownership of the anti-austerity protest calendar in the last six years, and things could have gone the other way; in any event, the SWP has been pushing the October 2 demonstration for all it is worth for months, in effect promoting it as a practical alternative to serious engagement in the struggle in the Labour Party. Let us be clear: the Tories’ was the wrong conference to attend this year.
Interestingly, the last-but-one Party Notes takes some minimal distance from total refusal to countenance anyone getting involved in ‘Labour infighting’. “There ought to be a confrontation and rejection of [the right’s] politics,” the comrades write (September 27). “For this reason we are in favour of reselection.” If any idiot bourgeois journalists are reading this, we would like to make it clear that SWP members are not going into the Labour Party: merely being authorised to enjoy some kind of purely Platonic support for deselecting rightwing MPs - which is something, I guess. However, “it would be a mistake if that was the sole focus of the battle against the right in Labour. The struggles on the streets and in the workplaces will be crucial if Corbyn is going to survive the pressures that will continue to be heaped on him.” We wonder which of the two will get the greatest prominence in the SWP’s press going forward.
At least this sort of horseshit, which has never looked so threadbare as it does now, is the core component of SWP politics going back decades. No such excuse is available to the CPB, which has somehow managed to pick up on this fatuous movementism just now, at the nadir of its plausibility. We turn to the Morning Star editorial of Saturday October 1:
Despite spectacular growth over the past year ... most British people are not Labour Party members, most do not care who picks the shadow cabinet or sits on the NEC. As Corbyn and McDonnell did in Liverpool, we must look beyond the wreckers in the ranks ...
The social movement we need to build rests on the sort of ... street activism trade unionists and activists of the People’s Assembly will demonstrate [on October 2].
The difficulties presented to the CPB by the Corbyn explosion have been well documented in this paper, but consist in brief of a severe membership bleed in the direction of Labour, as well as the utterly uncritical attitude towards Corbyn that its craven political method demands, in the name of avoiding sectarianism. Events like Sunday’s demonstration, unfortunately, expose only how little they represent other than the attempts of their organisers to stave off different forms of political collapse. It goes without saying, of course, that on the key questions actually dominating the news agenda on the day (Brexit and immigration), the PA could say nothing beyond the most shallow platitudes without shattering itself (particularly as the CPB/Morning Star axis is basically aligned with the Tory right in its desire to take back control of borders ... Good luck selling that line to bright-eyed Corbynistas).
In both the main parties in the British political system, high politics is undergoing a considerable shift, which, demands intervention. Comrades ought to stop hiding in the streets.