General strike call
Leadership favourite Liz Truss has promised to impose ‘minimum service levels’ on striking workers just 30 days after coming into office. In response, Mick Lynch says he will campaign for the TUC to call a general strike. Eddie Ford comments
When it comes to the Tory leadership contest, as everyone knows, we now have a different electorate - the Tory rank and file, not the parliamentary party. Rishi Sunak, the former chancellor, was the MPs’ favourite and everything indicates up until now that Liz Truss is the favourite amongst the membership - if not their darling. Of course, a couple of disastrous interviews or debates could change the picture.
The Tory leadership contest has been described as a ‘race to the right’ - which is certainly correct. All you have to do is watch the news or read the press, with every debate or hustings being a competition as to who can come out with most reactionary, most oppressive, most sadistic policy - hoping to appeal to the prejudices, both real and imagined, of the Tory rank and file. Or, as widely quoted, the leadership race has descended into “horrific nastiness” - to the point where some Tory MPs urged the remaining candidates to stop “knocking seven shades of shit out of each other” and to pull out of any head-to-head TV debates. Apparently, party grandees were worried that such public acrimonious squabbles - with hopefuls trying to scratch each other’s eyes out - were “trashing the brand”. In which case, long may it continue!
Upping the ante on “blue-on-blue” attacks was Nadine Dorries, a vociferous Liz Truss supporter and a fully paid-up swivel-eyed philistine. She laid into Rishi Sunak’s expensive attire after his campaign team had been making efforts to emphasise his family’s ever so umble beginnings - his Kenyan father being a GP working in the NHS and his Tanzanian mother a pharmacist. “Liz Truss will be travelling the country wearing her earrings which cost circa £4.50 from Claire Accessories [sic],” Dorries tweeted. “Meanwhile … Rishi visits Teesside in Prada shoes worth £450 and sported a £3,500 bespoke suit, as he prepared for the crunch leadership vote.” In retaliation, a Sunak ally said: “It’s a bit rich for a cabinet minister earning £140,000 to pretend they’re somehow just like everybody else.”
Actually, Liz Truss herself is from a lower-middle class background with leftwing parents who in the 1980s regularly took their daughter to protest marches against Margaret Thatcher, apartheid and nuclear weapons. She was president of Oxford University Liberal Democrats and at the 1984 Lib Dem conference she talked about abolishing the monarchy - before working for Shell and becoming a chartered management accountant. Naturally, hoping to discredit her, allies of Rishi Sunak are busily circulating a video of her 1984 speech on social media.
Presently, however, Sunak is somewhat stuck because he cannot get round the fact that many Tories see his last budget as being at least partly responsible for the cost of living crisis - Britain certainly has the highest level of taxation since the late 1940s.
Obviously feeling the pressure, Sunak has now pledged to scrap the 5% VAT rate on household energy from October if the price cap on bills rises above £3,000 for the typical household - which seems likely - having recently dismissed a Labour plan to do the same, on the basis that it would “disproportionately benefit wealthier households”. Supporters of Liz Truss have accused Sunak of performing a “screeching U-turn”, which might well be true - it would hardly be surprising if he is getting a bit desperate, given his performance in the latest polls.
Truss, of course, has ignored the advice of virtually all mainstream economists by talking about radical tax cuts at a time when inflation is rising sharply. Under normal circumstances, whatever Liz Truss might say, you would expect such a move to add to inflationary pressures - now standing at 9.4%, but forecast to hit 11.3% or even higher by the end of the year. Again, showing that the question of the European Union will never go away - a permanent purgatory Brexit - Liz Truss has vowed a “bonfire” of EU laws by 2023. If that were ever to happen, which is doubtful, that would probably lead to chaos - but what the heck.
Perhaps in another display of desperation - or ‘political common sense’, depending on how you look at things - Sunak has adopted a crude ‘let’s bash foreigners’ platform, which normally goes down well with the Tory membership and rightwing press. Not only will he send cross-Channel migrants or ‘boat people’ to Rwanda, he wants to expand the scheme to include other countries - more horrible places we can send you to if you dare to enter the UK illegally. Furthermore, he has offered a 10-point plan that involves a commitment to a narrower definition of who qualifies for asylum, with enhanced powers to detain, tag and monitor illegal migrants. Sunak has also promised to introduce an annual cap on the number of refugees accepted each year, threatening as well to cut off aid to countries that do not accept back their nationals, which seems entirely self-defeating. Surely the poorer poor countries get, the more people will want to leave. What exactly will Sunak do with these desperate people - force them onto planes back to Afghanistan, Syria or Iraq?
Of course, what we are dealing with here is electioneering - they say anything to get elected, based on the fact that members of the Tory rank and file tend to be rightwing and bigoted. But it would be a huge mistake to deduce from that, as some on the left do, that the main reason for the rank and file’s coolness towards Sunak is because of his race. Rather, they loath the tax increases coming down the line. Another important factor is Boris Johnson. Sunak knifed him in the back by resigning from the government. And, of course Boris remains hugely popular with these people, even if most Tory MPs though he should go in the interests of the party, the country … and their careers.
That explains why more than 10,000 Tory members have signed a petition demanding Johnson joins the leadership race, as replacing him as prime minister would be “guaranteeing a Labour victory” at the next election. Of course, the petition is a nonsense, but the crucial point is that Liz Truss is seen by the rank and file as remaining loyal to Johnson - hence in a better position to beat Keir Starmer and the Labour Party.
The left makes an equal hash of things when it comes to Sunak’s money. His unpopularity with the rank and file is not because he and his wife are fantastically rich - Nadine Dorries aside, when did that matter for Conservative Party members? Harold Macmillan, Margret Thatcher and David Cameron were not exactly poor. Famously, in 1988, Thatcher, who cleverly married into money, told the Church of Scotland’s general assembly about how charity relied on rich people working hard to create the necessary wealth. No, what rank and file Tories dislike about Sunak are his tax rises, his disloyalty, his technocratic narrowness of vision.
The left also finds itself completely discombobulated when it comes to Sunak’s vicious attacks on migrants. How can this son of Hindu east African Asian migrants propose such beastly things? But Jewish people, after all, can be out-and-out British national chauvinists even though their grandparents fled pogroms in Poland and Russia and met a very hostile reception from the Tories, and even from the TUC. So why cannot people whose parents came from Africa or the Indian sub-continent become out-and-out British national chauvinists too? Well, as shown by Rishi Sunak, Kemi Badenoch, Nadhim Zahawi and Suella Braverman, they can and they do.
Liz Truss appears set to win, according to a whole series of polls. What would her victory mean for government policy? Tax cuts - surely. Hiking inflation still further - surely. Even worse treatment for migrants - surely. Another round of anti-trade union laws - surely. After all, the Truss response to RMT, Aslef and TSSA strikes on the rails is to echo transport sectary Grant Shapps and threaten ever more restrictive anti-trade union laws: wider ballot margins, new votes for each strike day, the imposition of minimum service levels so that unions are forced to dilute the effectiveness of strikes.
Truss promises to deliver such a package within 30 days of coming into office. She wants to out-Thatcher Thatcher and return Britain not to Victorian, but Georgian values. In response, however, Mick Lynch, RMT general secretary, has rounded on Truss and her anti-trade union crusade. He promises to campaign for the TUC to get off its knees and call a general strike. An unlikely scenario. But, with the cost of living crisis, a widespread explosion of strike action is to be very much expected. There will be a hot autumn - surely.
And it is not only Conservative politics which are moving to the right. The innate laws of triangulation being pursued by Sir Keir and his team mean that Labour is moving rightwards too. Take the EU. Essentially his ‘make Brexit work’ repositioning has seen Labour adopt Theresa May’s old stance. Having previously been an ardent Remainer agitating for a second referendum - which in no small part led to Labour’s crushing defeat in 2019 - now Sir Keir is a soft Brexiteer.
The logic of triangulation is that the centre of British politics moves steadily to the right. That is what saw Sir Keir sack Sam Tarry from the shadow cabinet. While Tarry has his own reasons for suddenly wanting to appear leftwing by turning up on an RMT picket line at London’s Euston station (he is a former TSSA official and faces a reselection challenge), he is also, reportedly, no less to the point, close to Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner. So his sacking could, possibly, trigger a split at leadership level.