Rishi Sunak in 2018. Photo: Flickr/Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Govt Rishi Sunak in 2018. Photo: Flickr/Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Govt

Alex Snowdon on Tory weaknesses, challenging racism and the Sanders campaign   

This week’s budget statement by the new chancellor, Rishi Sunak, is taking place in the context of a Tory government with a large majority, emboldened by December’s very strong election results and aided by an official opposition that is currently focused on its own internal affairs. But that doesn’t mean the government inevitably has everything going its own way. Reality can be a brutally corrective. The budget is also happening against the background of a decade of austerity, a growing climate crisis and urgent concerns about the spread of coronavirus.

The scale of damage done by a decade of cuts was revealed last week by Polly Toynbee and David Walker’s article in the Guardian. Average household debt (not including mortgages) is now £15,385 as working people, with squeezed pay, have to rely increasingly on credit. New school and hospital building has ground to a halt. 800 libraries have closed. Transport infrastructure has been neglected, housing targets have been missed by spectacular margins, and the public realm in general has shrunk; the Food Standards Agency now tests 58% fewer samples, while Nature England has lost half of its budget and shed a thousand inspectors.

In addition, to this post-austerity landscape, we need to consider the climate crisis. It is estimated by the IPPR think tank that Boris Johnson’s government needs to spend an additional £33 billion annually to meet its own target of cutting carbon emissions to zero by 2050. There is little evidence that the Tories are willing to redirect their priorities towards the required scale of investment in public transport, low-carbon homes and other measures. Increased spending on flood defences is likely to be one of the budget’s headline announcements, but this is small-scale next to the bigger challenge of addressing the climate emergency.

Then there is coronavirus. The weak government response highlights the inadequacy of neoliberal capitalism, in which the market governs everything and the needs of people are secondary. Having a strong, coordinated public response to a major public health challenge is being hampered by the dominance of the profit motive. Trade unions are rightly promoting the need for things like sick pay and secure contracts as vital protections for workers.

These are the realities that confront the government. While in some ways the Tories are politically strong, it was never going to be as straightforward for them as many commentators suggested in the rosy afterglow of Johnson’s election victory. We should remember this – and we should have no hesitation in taking the fight to the Tories across a wide range of issues.

Kicking back against the smears

It was pleasing to see the statement from Show Racism the Red Card rebuking those who attacked it over having Ken Loach and Michael Rosen as judges in a popular schools competition it is running. The Board of Deputies was among those who smeared Loach and Rosen, committed lifelong socialists and anti-racists, in an attempt to tarnish them by association with antisemitism. This was always a particularly ludicrous example of the cynical weaponising of antisemitism designed to stigmatise the left.

The decision by the educational charity was refreshing because we have become so accustomed to craven obsequiousness in response to antisemitism smears. It is a reminder that the attacks on the left can be resisted and defeated if there is a principled and coordinated response. The Labour Party’s national executive made a grave mistake in September 2018 when it accepted the IHRA definition of antisemitism, including examples that conflate antisemitism (a form of racism) with political objections to the apartheid state of Israel. Candidates in the current Labour leadership contest have been divided merely over whether to declare themselves Zionists or merely ‘supportive of Zionism’. The repeated concessions have emboldened those who are determined to weaken the left and made their job easier, while doing precisely nothing to combat antisemitism.

An important element in this weaponising of antisemitism has been the project of delegitimising opposition to Israeli apartheid, racism and violence. That is perhaps the main reason why, irrespective of Jeremy Corbyn standing down as Labour leader, the smear campaign will continue. This is at a time when the situation on the ground for Palestinians is, incredible as it may seem, getting even worse. Very little is said about that in the British media and, disgracefully, it has not registered at all in the Labour leadership race. Trump’s ludicrously-monikered Deal of the Century is a green light to the processes of dispossession and annexation that are already very much underway. 

Biden vs Sanders

It has been a big couple of weeks in the race to be the Democratic challenger to Donald Trump in November’s US presidential election. Pete Buttigieg, Michael Bloomberg and Elizabeth Warren have successively dropped out of the race, leaving it to former vice president Joe Biden and Vermont senator Bernie Sanders to face each other in a highly polarised clash. ‘Super Tuesday’ emboldened Biden while disappointing Sanders supporters, though the left-wing candidate still has a chance of becoming the nominee.

The Democratic establishment has rallied around Biden, despite his obvious weaknesses. He has made a series of gaffes, he has a rambling speaking style, a general air of mediocrity, a very dubious record on racism, and he is clearly vulnerable to being portrayed as the embodiment of the Washington establishment. Pressure was undoubtedly put on other candidates to withdraw in order to unite ‘moderate’ support behind Biden. The neoliberal centrists of the Democratic Party are terrified of Sanders, who has been building momentum partly through a series of very large rallies.

Biden, if he becomes the candidate, will struggle to defeat Trump. A number of polls have suggested that either Biden or Sanders will beat Trump in November, but experienced and serious forecasters suggest there is a good chance Trump will withstand the challenge. One reason is that the electoral college is not the same as the popular vote: Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016 thanks to the former, despite narrowly losing the latter. Trump is in a strong position to motivate his voter base, but Biden’s underwhelming candidacy is likely to struggle to do the same for the Democrats.

There is still hope for Sanders – and if he wins the nomination it will be an electric, politicised and very hopeful presidential contest. But if he misses out then it is essential that the energy and enthusiasm unleashed by his campaign doesn’t simply dissipate. It will need to be redirected, as much as possible, into strengthening social movements, rebuilding the trade unions and developing a bigger and more organised left in American politics.

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).