Tory 'march on Rome'

The Tories are a far bigger threat than BNP, says James Turley

The numbers speak for themselves: across the country, 12 local councils have passed into the overall control of the Conservatives, who now hold 65 in total to Labour’s 18. The Tories are the largest fraction (though nevertheless a minority) in the London assembly, and Boris Johnson has deposed Ken Livingstone for the top job.

The British National Party, meanwhile, picked up a net gain of 12 councillors around the country - not earth-shattering, but the leadership will be pleased. Far more exciting for Nick Griffin and his cohorts is their success in getting Richard Barnbrook elected to the LA by meeting the 5% additional member threshold. Their share of the vote did not increase drastically by any means, but the 0.6% they did gain was enough to get a toehold. The National Front, meanwhile, achieved respectable votes in two constituencies (and in Greenwich and Lewisham outperformed the Left List’s Jennifer Jones and Socialist Party’s Chris Flood combined). Even the English Democrats, an idiosyncratic rightwing party, managed to get 10,695 votes for its mayoral candidate - despite the fact that he had withdrawn his candidacy.


In spite of his good-natured, floppy-haired image the new mayor is on the hard right of the Tories. Johnston infamously penned an editorial for The Spectator referring to Africans as “picaninnies”; more generally, during the time he edited the magazine, it gained a reputation for putting an old-money spin on the most torridly reactionary ideas around (as an occasional look at the rantings of Taki will attest). His limitless enthusiasm for American military power is also a matter of record - a stark contrast to the muddled but nevertheless sincere anti-imperialism of Ken Livingstone.

Livingstone himself is hardly a paid-up revolutionary - his relationship with the far left has generally consisted of alliances of convenience with the most pliantly degenerate sects going (Gerry Healy’s odious Workers Revolutionary Party in the 1980s, and the Stalinoid bureaucrats of Socialist Action today), often with the explicit purpose of neutralising even soft opposition from his left. In his time as mayor, he has rolled over repeatedly on the privatisation of transport services, and called for workers to cross an RMT picket.

Still, he has introduced a few modest reforms, which are likely to bite the dust under Johnson. The ‘London living wage’, such as it is, will go (if he can get away with it). The current good relations with ‘community groups’ enjoyed by the GLA are likely to turn sour in the hands of a true-born heir to the Monday Club tradition of semi-Powellite crypto-racism. It is not for nothing that, according to The Guardian of May 3, an unnamed shadow cabinet minister compared Johnson’s success to Mussolini’s march on Rome. While presumably this was a joke, it does indicate the points of reference shared by powerful elements within the Tory Party.

As for the rest of Johnson’s party, it cannot be denied that David Cameron’s electoral strategy is based on an image of moderation and carefully chosen ‘liberal’ positions; however, the institutional apparatus of the Tory party is such that it is capable of a severe and immediate sweep in the opposite direction (Conservative MEPs have, after all, refused to sign up to the centre-right European People’s Party in the EU parliament, preferring to help create a new, more extreme bloc, the European Democrats). And, of course, Johnson certainly will not have been the only hard-right Tory to pick up a job in municipal government on May 1.


The immediate impact of the results is not insignificant - the London mayoralty, lest we forget, is the third-largest directly elected mandate in Europe and, however badly Thatcher gutted local government, it still retains enough power for a change in control to make an impact in peoples’ lives.

However, the long-term implications will be exciting commentators and activists for some time. This is a cataclysmic result for Labour, and it is likely to shift the balance of power within that party and between the ruling class parties more generally.

It is clear that New Labour, if it has not done so already, is in danger of irrevocably losing the confidence of the ruling class. Its role has been effectively to enforce and extend the penetration of neoliberalism into ever larger sectors of the British economy, and provide the necessary political, repressive and ideological muscle to ensure that it is not challenged. Certainly, the political method, borrowed from Clinton by the Blair circle in the mid-90s, of ‘triangulating’ between the middle class right and working class left in order to keep both on board, has been a total wash-out. The middle classes have flocked back to the Tories, and many workers have simply stayed at home.

The soft-left Labour grouping, Compass, says as much in its write-up of the polls, headlined, “New Labour is now dead” (www.compassonline.org.uk/article.asp?n=1799). Between the lashings of sub-Giddens jargon, the message is stark: “If Brownism is just Blairism without the economic boom then the party is finished.”

Whether this failure indeed turns out to be fatal depends on the severity and depth of the current financial crisis, and the consequences for the global functioning of the capitalist system. If there is to be, as Hillel Ticktin argued in a recent interview with this paper, a return to Keynesian demand management and intense macro-economic trickery (‘Financial turmoil heralds return to Keynesianism’, April 3), then neither major party in its present state seems able to deliver. However, an internal shift in the Labour Party (not necessarily even sacrificing Brown) towards this kind of policy would be more likely than a parallel shift in the Conservatives.

‘Call me Dave’ Cameron’s attempt at a ‘nice’ image, it should be remembered, is not one that envisages state-level Keynesian measures, but a greater role for voluntary and religious organisations in social provision. It is one-nation conservatism of a Disraeli rather than a Macmillan vintage.

On the other hand, neoliberal capital may weather the storm, and emerge without any serious ‘structural adjustments’ necessary. This would leave Labour not naturally on firmer ground than the Tories, and in fact much weaker after last week’s battering. (A third possibility - the failure of the system to deal with its difficulties in good time, leading to a protracted crisis around the time of the next election - would almost certainly lead to a Tory victory.)

Due to this uncertainty, more than anything else, it is too early to write off a fourth Labour term. A serious, even if very limited reversal in the present hard neoliberal consensus at the top of the party would revive its fortunes, if the economic upheaval produces space for such policies.

At a more prosaic level, it is probable that Johnson’s inevitable attacks on London’s public services will provoke a slightly more spirited opposition from the union bureaucracy than we have seen thus far. The scant possibility of successful negotiations will force a more aggressive strategy. Whether or not such a development will qualitatively expand into a general outbreak of trade union militancy beyond what we have seen in recent months is uncertain.

What is most clear is that the Conservative Party is back with a vengeance. While Brown lurches from cock-up to cock-up, Cameron, after a long period where his slickness caused as much suspicion as admiration, is starting to look like a contender for prime minister. It was not long ago, as the Tories lurched from one ineffective leader to the next, that New Labour triumphalists entertained fantasies of becoming the ‘natural party of government’, and talked of the death of the Conservative Party. It was just as idiotic when the same fate was predicted for the Labour Party during the Thatcher era.