John Rees on the reasons for the Tory debacle and what comes next

Steady yourselves, I’m going to quote Laura Kuenssberg approvingly. It is, after all, hard to disagree with the BBC’s chief retailer of Tory spin when she writes, ‘The problem that is increasingly on people’s minds at this grisly conference is that the Tories might be only at the start of a decline, which becomes impossible to escape’. And then goes on to quote Tory ministers opining that “there is a smell of decay” and that the situation is “hopeless, but we are resigned to the nightmare”.

Nothing in May’s speech will retrieve the situation. 

Last year in Birmingham the then newly appointed May tried out the ‘Tories are the party of the working class’ rhetoric. Some gullible journalists seemed to believe it, but few others did. This year even May doesn’t look as if she takes it seriously.

Defensive, apologetic, haltingly delivered, and interrupted by a protestor handing her a P45, May looked like a prime minister waiting to leave. The speech’s oxymoronic mix of Labour-lite, one-nation Toryism and defence of the free market was a disaster.

In reality, the Tories only have one policy. It is so simple it could be reduced to a chant: ‘Oh no! Jeremy Corbyn’.

As the tumbleweed blows down the empty aisles of their conference, only fear of a Corbyn landslide is keeping the Tories together. 

But even so, May is clearly on borrowed time. And, unlike her Chancellor, she hasn’t borrowed that much.

Boris Johnson, the spluttering racist Blimp, the love child of Draco Malfoy and Morticia Addams, can hardly restrain his leadership ambitions.

Voter-repellent Jacob Rees-Smug, the man who gave his 5 year old son a First World War Ambulance Train Set (presumably so that he can play at evacuating millions of corpses from the Somme and Ypres), is sat proudly behind a framed portrait of Margaret Thatcher at a fringe meeting dreaming that a grateful nation will make him prime minister.

So, it is blindingly obvious that the Tory government is in an advanced state of decline. But we need to understand the causes of that decline and build on that analysis a strategy to get rid of them.

The causes of Tory chaos

So, the real question is, why is the Tory party in such a parlous state? After all, there have been splits and divisions, over-blown egos and the ambitious, in the Tory party before. 

But not like this. That’s because Brexit really does face British capitalism with some fundamental choices. Moreover, the Tories as a whole seem to believe, deeply, if wrongly, that these are existential issues for British capitalism. 

Over Brexit, the Tories are not only divided among themselves. Much more importantly the British capitalist class and the bourgeoisie as a whole are divided. 

Only a small minority of the capitalist class and the establishment want Brexit. Some smaller capitalists oriented on the domestic market, a few maverick millionaires, the little-Englander core of the Tory party membership (itself only 100,000 individuals with an average age of 71), a minority of Tory MPs, supported by the most reactionary and racist sections of the press.

Facing them on the Remain side are the really important sections of the capitalist class and the bourgeoisie: the big corporations without serious exception, most employers’ organisations led by the CBI, the Bank of England, the BBC and the liberal press, most NGOs, the National Farmers Union, most Tory MPs, the whole of the Lib Dems, a majority of Labour MPs led by the most vociferous opponents of Jeremy Corbyn and stage managed by Alistair Campbell and his old boss.

The result of the European referendum has left the Tory party in a unique positon, with the possible exception of the era of the Corn Laws in the early 19thcentury.

The Tory party has been left to implement a Brexit policy which is the diametric opposite of that supported by the majority and most powerful sections of the capitalist class and, therefore, only favoured by a minority of its own MPs.

A Tory party that is not carrying out the will of the most important sections of its class base is a contradiction in terms. The modern Tory party exists to carry the will of the capitalist class into parliamentary politics, give it a democratic veneer by winning sections of the middle classes and the less class-conscious working class to its cause, and put it into effect through the machinery of government.

This class bloc has fallen apart on the issue of Brexit, leaving the Tories to implement a policy their most powerful supporters utterly abhor. 

Moreover, and this is crucial, by adopting the People’s Brexit policy during the general election, Jeremy Corbyn won over a considerable Leave constituency, including a third of UKIP voters who, had they all gone to the Tories, would have delivered the Tory majority that May had promised.

No wonder the internal life of the Tory party is poisoned beyond immediate relief.

Add to this the fact that while it is distraught over Brexit the government is failing to govern the country. The most serious issues facing us have little to do with Brexit.

Chronic underinvestment and a resulting low wage, low productivity economy is a decades-long problem dating back at least to the 1970s and arguably to the inter-war period.

The financialisation of the economy is a global neo-liberal disease of late capitalism, albeit given a particularly vicious twist in the UK by Thatcherism and Blairism.

The dependence on the arms industry is a problem associated with Atlanticism and embodied in NATO, and is not primarily an EU related issue.

And when it comes to declining real wages and welfare cuts, indeed the whole austerity programme, these have all been a decade-long experience.

While the Tories are mesmerised by Brexit they aren’t dealing with any of this. Indeed, they are further disabled from doing so because they seem to believe, on both sides of the EU divide, that everything is now a consequence of Brexit, but many of these issues will not go away whether or not we stay in the EU. 

The left’s response

So, if this is the nature of the Tory crisis, what should the left strategy be? Here are some key themes:

Take Brexit seriously. Jeremy Corbyn was right to forge a People’s Brexit response to the referendum result and it served Labour magnificently in the general election by winning Leave voters and critical Remain voters to its cause. Even a third of UKIP voters abandoned the fake anti-establishment stance of the party for the real anti-establishment stance of Corbyn’s Labour.

So, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Ignore the siren voices of the Labour right Remainers who want Labour to abandon a sizable section of its own voters, imperil its future ability to re-nationalise industry, risk re-energising the currently defunct UKIP, and undermine Corbyn’s leadership in the process, by adopting the hyper-EU patriotism of the Lib Dems, Alistair Campbell and Tony Blair.

We should be clear we are for free movement, and not just of mainly white people from advanced economies, but of all workers…and that means defending the rights of workers from EU countries and getting out of Fortress Europe, whose border patrol agency is currently leaving migrants to drown in the Mediterranean or forcing them back into detention camps in war-ravaged Libya.

But we should also be clear that employers are exploiting migrant labour and using that exploitation to drive down the wages and conditions of domestic workers. Jeremy Corbyn is right to highlight this. But it is the employers, not the migrants, who are to blame.

Don’t take Brexit too seriously. Most of what is wrong with this country long predates Brexit and will, if not addressed in its own terms, continue to impoverish working people whether we are or are not in the EU.

For EU obsessives on both sides of the argument, the EU is the source of all evil/virtue. This is simply untrue. The British ruling class and international capital are the fundamental root of low wages, attacks on welfare, the housing crisis, wars, and racism. The EU is certainly an institution devoted to assisting the domestic ruling classes in attacking workers and promoting wars, but it is not the root cause.

We should not repeat the Tory error of focussing exclusively on Brexit when the problems of working-class existence need addressing in their own terms. Now.

And the UK’s defence policy is driven by the ‘special relationship’ with the US, not primarily by relations with the EU. Again, this needs addressing in its own terms, and divisions over Europe should not prevent unity on these issues.

You don’t win elections simply by electioneering. Jeremy Corbyn has put Labour into full-time campaign mode. And rightly so. But elections are only a snapshot of views formed on a much broader canvas than door knocking and leaflet delivery can address.

Broader experience of economic, social and political struggle is necessary to sustain a radical consciousness among millions that can then be mobilised in an election.

Corbynism itself arose from over a decade of anti-capitalist and anti-war mobilisations, and is sustained by trade union organisation that is more numerous, deeper, and broader than the Labour party.

For this reason, the Momentum strategy of concentrating on internal Labour Party work and electioneering is only partially what is needed.

Now, more than ever, an extra-parliamentary mobilisation against austerity and war is necessary. Now more than ever, strikes and the solidarity movement they require for success is necessary.

A Labour government would be very likely if an election were held today. But on a purely electoral timetable, it will not be held until 2022. There is a real danger that ‘peak Corbynism’ can have come and gone by then. Politics is all about timing. Miss the moment and there is no guarantee it will come again.

Moreover, it really matters not just when the Tories fall but how the Tories fall. They may stagger on until the next election, they may implode before then. Either way, that will be an (uplifting) spectator sport for the mass of working people.

But better, far better, if the Tories are forced from power by a mass movement of protests, demonstrations, direct action, and strikes. That will not only be the quickest way of ending this disgrace of a government, it will also mean that Labour comes to power on a wave of self-activity by workers. 

And it is precisely that kind of movement which will be necessary to defend a Corbyn government from the inevitable attack it will face from the establishment.

We, in Counterfire, want Jeremy Corbyn swept to office by a mass movement which can both defend and discipline a Labour government, keeping it both in power and radical. The means of coming to office will shape the ends that can be achieved in office.

Electoralism is part of this picture, but it is far from being the only or the most important part of this picture.

The People’s Assembly protests at Tory party conference show what can be done and how vital that work is in keeping the Tories on the defensive. The CWU ballot result and the ongoing strikes show that many workers can’t wait on the electoral timetable. 

Socialist ideas are in the ascendant, the Tories are a broken party, now is the time to strike, protest and demonstrate to drive them from office. 

John Rees

John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.