Toryland now decides
Rank-and-file Conservatives are more likely to vote for Liz Truss than the so-called ‘socialist’, Rishi Sunak - or so we are told. Eddie Ford investigates
From a packed field of 11, we are now down to the last two candidates in the contest to replace Boris Johnson as Conservative Party leader - Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss. Over the summer they will face the final verdict of the Tory membership of about 160,000, with the winner being announced on Monday September 5. Right from the beginning, it was all but certain that the former chancellor, Sunak, would come top amongst Tory MPs. Therefore it was a race to see who would come second and get to challenge him for the crown.
We have long been told by the bookies that the Tory membership will opt for the alternative to Sunak. Or, to be more precise, the rightwing alternative to Sunak will come out the winner - which is indeed more than possible. The likes of Jeremy Hunt or Tom Tugendhat never stood a chance of getting to the final round, which they must have known - especially as they were irredeemably tainted by voting ‘remain’ in the 2016 referendum. Instead, their campaigns were more about getting noticed and securing a position under the new leader. Kemi Badenoch, for instance, obviously fancies herself in some big role.
Predictably, a YouGov poll at the beginning of the week found that Sunak would lose to either Penny Mordaunt or Liz Truss in a head-to-head. Interestingly, however, the influential Conservative Home website came out with different results, having its ear closer to the ground, when it comes to the views of the Tory membership1. It found that support for Mordaunt had significantly dropped, to the point that Sunak would actually defeat her despite the membership’s general antipathy towards him. Either way, he now faces Truss and the odds are on her winning (suffice to say, a lot can happen during the campaign, with its regional hustings, TV debates and banana skins). Truss has, of course, done a lot of reinvention - after all she opposed Brexit back in 2016. Now, having driven on a tank like Margaret Thatcher and having dressed like Margaret Thatcher, she is the candidate of the Tory right.
Anyway, stating what should be the obvious, though perhaps not to everyone, communists take the Tory leadership contest seriously. We do not ignorantly dismiss it because strikes and protests, or even global warming, are more important. But, of course, there is no need to counterpose these questions - that would be stupid.
Clearly, the selection of a new Tory leader matters a lot - whether it comes to the next general election, or what the government does or does not do regarding climate change. Does it remain committed to the net-zero target by 2050? Almost everyone is expecting a huge explosion of industrial disputes, and therefore it also matters in terms of what concessions the government does or does not give. In other words, the politics of the ruling class - the enemy - should matter to us just as much as the politics of the labour movement. High politics is about studying and assessing all classes in society.
Some comrades on the left have suggested that Tory rank-and-file hostility to Rishi Sunak is because of racism. Good god, we cannot have someone of Asian origins as British prime minister! Sorry, this is almost certainly wrong. As a correction, look at the poll results of Tory members taken just after the July 15 Channel Four debate between the last five candidates - which should tell you something about the modern-day Conservative Party. The largest number preferred Kemi Badenoch, who has Nigerian parents, and, more to the point, is on the far right. In terms of the rank and file, 31% favoured her with Truss quite far behind on 20% and Sunak on 17%. Rejection of Sunak was a lot more about politics than racism.
Sunak is seen as disloyal. He resigned from the cabinet and knifed the beloved Boris Johnson in the back. The rank and file will not easily forgive him. Truss on the other hand stayed loyal and in post. And, of course, as everyone knows, members of Conservative associations out there in the country have always been to the right of the parliamentary party - even when they had a million members.
During this contest, a lot of code words are being used, not to mention a lot of reinvention. For example, when you look at Sunak’s political background, he is the driest-of-dry Thatcherites you can find. But what happened to the chancellor, of course, is that we had a pandemic and, as a result, we had to ‘tear up all the economics textbooks’ - well, all the textbooks that Sunak believed in. Instead of relying on plucky private enterprise and the invisible hand of the market to deal with the crisis, they used state power and state money. For instance, the main vaccine in Britain was developed by AstraZeneca on a no-profit basis in conjunction with Oxford University, but was pushed through by an interventionist state.
Sunak may still be popular with a lot of MPs, but out there in Toryland many view him as a ‘socialist’. In the same way, many on the right accused George W Bush of turning socialist because he resorted to massive state intervention to deal with the financial crash of 2007-08. We in the CPGB have written about Covid socialism in the same manner that the German high command from 1916 onwards talked about Krieg Socialismus (war socialism). This is what Sunak is seen as representing to very large numbers of ordinary Tory members. This is why - crazily in many ways - the debate so far has not been dominated by global warming, the cost of living crisis and pending industrial explosion, the Ukraine war, the new wave of Covid ... Rather, how to cut taxes. Except for Sunak, of course, who says that, once he has dealt with inflation and stabilised the economy, then he will cut taxes. Others, including Truss, have said that from “day one” of becoming prime minister, they will cut taxes - which is a way of attacking Rishi Sunak’s ‘Covid socialism’ and positioning themselves solidly on the right.
In some respects, the attacks on Rishi Sunak for having rejected standard rightwing policies are not without a kernel of truth. It is certainly true that, because of this dry Thatcherite and his successive budgets, Britain has the highest level of taxation since the late 1940s under the Clement Attlee Labour government, when we still had rationing. That is what the Tory rank and file are bitterly complaining about. Interestingly, various business organisations and also the International Monetary Fund are actually saying, ‘Don’t mess around with corporation tax’. Meaning that there is a sharp disjuncture between the political ambitions of the candidates and what big business thinks should be done.
Looking at a recent edition of Socialist Worker enables us to take a different angle. Quite rightly, it leads with the Tory leadership contest on the front page and also has a double-page on it inside. Strangely, the thumbnail photos over the article include Priti Patel, who never stood, two of Sajid Javid, but left out Nadhim Zahawi (perhaps editor Charlie Kimber cannot tell Sajid Javid and Nadhim Zahawi apart). Anyway, it is worthwhile interrogating one of the headlines - “Rich racist bigots stand for the leadership”. Yes, it is certainly true that many of the candidates are extremely rich. Sunak’s wife, Akshata Murthy, is worth £750 million: she is the daughter of NR Narayana Murthy, a founder of the IT company Infosys (she owns a 0.93% share), and Rishi himself is hardly short of a penny or two. He is reportedly worth £200 million. Zahawi, an Iraqi Kurd, the second richest person in parliament, comes some way behind with a mere £100 million. He has a murky family history: his grandfather was governor of the central bank and his father built up a fortune under Saddam Hussein. There is talk of money going missing in offshore accounts and stuff like that.
But what about the “racist” accusation? Depends, of course, on how you define ‘racism’ - but the Socialist Workers Party is lazy in its approach. Out of the original 11 candidates, six of them were so-called BAME people, while four of them were women. Surely this tells you something about changes in British society, including at the top. If the Tory Party is fielding such a variety of candidates, then you would think it is time for the left to go away and rethink its traditional categories. I do not deny for a second that historically the Tory Party is a racist and bigoted party - the party of Arthur Balfour and Winston Churchill, both of whom presided over a huge empire. But, precisely as with anti-Semitism, what the thinking left needs to do is locate change. Transparently, the economic position of Jews has radically changed from the 1930s, when if you went to some of the poorest parts of the East End of London it would be dominated by Jewish people - the men going to boxing classes to defend themselves from everyday racist attacks by Blackshirts and bigots. Now, the majority of Jewish people come - very loosely defined - from the middle classes.
There have also been big changes in migrant communities since the 1950s and 60s. Famously in 1968, the odious Enoch Powell, shadow minister of defence under Ted Heath, made his anti-migrant ‘rivers of blood’ speech. It sparked a bigoted plebeian response, with London dockers actually marching in support of him. Ironically, many of the migrants were originally encouraged to come to Britain from the West Indies by Enoch Powell when he was health minister.
But big change has happened since then. Go to Harrow in north London, which has one of the highest concentrations of people from an Indian background - many of them vote enthusiastically for the Tory MP, Bob Blackman. We have seen a shift, at least among sections of migrant populations who are one or more generations on, towards Tory politics, because there has been a change in class. Instead of being at the bottom of society, for one reason or another, they have worked themselves up - and, in pursuit of their ambitions, not a few have joined the Tory Party, and even become ministers.
If you describe racism as being in favour of barbarically deporting people to Rwanda, including those who later become successful asylum-seekers - then fair enough. But then what you are actually doing is saying that people whose parents came from Nigeria, Uganda, the Indian sub-continent, etc, but who also support such deportations, are racists. Logically you also have to accuse people who are in favour of immigration controls of being racist too - even if they insist upon “non-racist” immigration controls. Now you are including the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain or, for that matter, the Socialist Party in England and Wales, and other groups on the left such as George Galloway’s Workers’ Party. And it definitely applies to most of the Labour left.
When the Second International had a big debate about immigration, the majority, thankfully, opposed migration controls. But there was a big minority that feared foreign competition - especially when it came to wages, cheap labour being brought in from outside and undercutting indigenous workers. This helps to explain why communists prefer the term national chauvinism to describe current sentiments - more precise and accurate than ‘racism’, which is more a swear word. We have absolutely no problem in describing all the candidates - defeated and victorious - as having bought into the poison of British chauvinism, which suits their class interests. In fact, it would be amazing if they did not.
Class is the crucial factor, not race or ethnicity.