Liz Truss Liz Truss resigns. Photo: Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, license linked below article

The party political landscape in Britain is entering a period of extreme flux, argues Vladimir Unkovski-Korica, and the left must fight for change

Liz Truss promised major change in the UK. As her short premiership came to an abrupt end, it may yet herald major changes – just not the ones she imagined.

Many are speculating that the end of Truss may mean the end of the Tories. Will it, and what would that mean for Britain’s seemingly everlasting two-party system?

Long decline

As recently as the last general election, only the Tories and Labour achieved double digits in terms of the popular vote, shoring up the country’s seemingly impregnable two-party system.But, in reality, British politics has experienced a long, slow corrosion from within, and the implosion of the Truss government may very much prove to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

The roots of the corrosion run deep. British imperial decline in the 20th century was a long-term factor, but the decomposition sped up with the turn to neoliberalism under Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher’s major success was to move British politics rightward, such that New Labour continued many of her neoliberal policies after taking power in 1997.

But the transformation of Britain in these decades towards a more service-based economy with the financial sector in the City of London at its core left many deindustrialised areas behind. Moreover, despite economic growth returning, real wages stagnated and inequalities increased. New Labour’s marriage to neoliberalism eroded its support over time, as did the Iraq war.

Between 1997 and 2010, Labour lost 5 million votes. But the Tories were not the main beneficiary. They only returned to power in coalition with the Lib Dems in 2010.

Sharp turns

Since the Thatcher era, the British two-party system had in fact begun to fade. But, given the territorial, first-past the post electoral system in the UK, the process was slow. In the 1980s, the right wing split from Labour, the SDP, proved short-lived, as did the Green breakthrough following its strong showing in the 1989 European elections.

But while the 1990s saw an interruption in that trend, with the rise of hope and New Labour, the bitter disappointments of the 2000s and 2010s saw a turbulent phase in British politics.

The two-party system was challenged on a number of fronts. Given the territorial nature of UK constituencies, nationalist parties experienced a seemingly inexorable rise in Scotland and Wales.

And even in England, the dramatic rise and fall of the Lib Dems and UKIP suggested that the two-party system was being deeply shaken by the failures of neoliberalism and the decline of Britain on the world stage.

While the independence referendum in Scotland proved to be a threat narrowly averted for the British establishment in 2014, the Brexit referendum underlined the extent to which establishment politics and popular feeling had drifted apart.

Between Brexit and Corbyn

The period that has ensued saw the Tory party in increasing disarray. Its more cosmopolitan, ruling class wing, which was deeply connected with the globalised economy, and deeply committed to austerity politics, lost control of the party.

After David Cameron, the party has had three leaders: Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and Liz Truss. That is four prime ministers in just over six years. By next week that will be five prime ministers, as a new leader is elected without any consultation beyond Tory MPs.

For a while, the Tories’ support for  Brexit was a way to cover for the fact that they had little vision of the way forward. The party membership was now made up of nationalistic, predominantly wealthy older  middle class members who hated the globalised economy. They also faced an existential threat from a leftward moving Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn. Elected party leader in 2015, Corbyn led Labour to a spectacular comeback in 2017, denying the Tories an overall majority and coming within a few thousand votes of victory.

The Corbynite surge was premised on a return to social democratic measures that clearly appealed to a wide coalition, including many Leave voters. Indeed, Corbynism reversed the long decline of Labour votes in many Leave areas. That concentrated Tory minds. They papered over their divisions to maintain ruling class support and to defeat Corbynism. The ‘levelling up’ agenda started under May, but saw its apogee under Johnson. This played a key role in winning some Leave areas from Labour.

But they were also aided by the Labour right’s decision to weaponise Brexit against Corbyn. Unfortunately much of Labour’s left this process by helping win the party over to the electorally disastrous second referendum position, compounding trust issues in Labour in areas which had felt abandoned by New Labour in preceding decades.

The Great Disconnect

Following the 2019 general election, and the triumph over Labour, the Tories appeared to have recovered a raison d’être: ‘levelling up’ under Brexit in order to cement their rule over formerly ‘red wall’ seats in the north and the midlands. But the rhetoric was never matched by the deeds. The great disconnect was symbolised by Johnson’s partying while millions were under lockdown and while over 200,000 died of Covid. His departure in disgrace saw the end of ‘levelling up’.

Indeed, the situation faced by the Tory party sees them facing economic downturn which the ruling class wishes to impose on the rest of us in order to rein in rising inflation. Inflation is in good part a result of the end of just-in-time supply chains after Covid, rising protectionism in the global economy, the effects of the Ukraine war on fuel and food supplies, and booming profits among a minority of monopoly capitalists in this new context.

In these circumstances, the deranged decision of Johnson’s successors to pursue a cocktail of Reaganite-Thatcherite policies like tax cuts, combined with English nationalism and right-wing culture wars, proved to be a step further than anything the British establishment was prepared to tolerate under the circumstances.

The departure of Kwasi Kwarteng as Chancellor heralded the end of the tax cuts agenda last week, just weeks after he announced his mini-budget, while the departure of Suella Braverman as Home Secretary this week marked the final blow to the Truss government.

Staring at the abyss

The new Tory PM faces very difficult choices, and it is clear that austerity is now back as the preferred ruling class strategy to exit the crisis. With over 300,000 deaths attributed to austerity in the last 12 years of Tory rule, and the extreme turbulence inaugurated by Truss’s short premiership, however, the Tories face an impossible task convincing voters they can be trusted with the economy.

Indeed, Tory MPs are already speculating about a long time in opposition or even the end of their party. The ruling class is increasingly turning to Starmer Labour, which has proclaimed its loyalty to fiscal rectitude, British nationalism, NATO, and bashing the unions and the left.

Yet the pressures on Starmer Labour even before it takes power will be huge. How long it can balance between ruling class expectations to remain loyal to its needs and the desperation of working people for change given the cost of living crisis is an open question.

We saw some of these pressures expressed in Starmer’s TUC speech this week. While he called for a general election and promised to reverse any anti-union legislation passed by the Truss government, the alternatives he offered were couched in vacuous and patriotic language.

He said: ‘our country must come first’ and, about the Tories, ‘they lack the basic patriotic duty to keep the British people out of their own pathetic squabbles’. Starmer’s nationalist rhetoric ignores the basic fact that the private energy companies making profits hand over fist do not have the same interests as working class people in Britain.

A glance at the fate of mainstream, centrist social democracy in continental Europe suggests that Starmer’s Labour faces great challenges as it prepares for government. Most social democratic parties have dwindled implementing neoliberal policies and austerity.

Indeed, closer to home, one need only look at Scotland to see that Labour dominance can evaporate quickly if Labour is not seen to deliver an alternative to ruling class policies.

Breaking with traditional politics

And, indeed, the lesson of the last Tory government is salutary. Having won a thumping parliamentary majority in 2019, it sees its star waning less than three years later. For parliament is not the site of real power in capitalist society: the capitalist class has just demonstrated that by orchestrating a U-turn on Truss’s policies in a matter of weeks.

That brings us to the left. Squeezed out of Labour, sections of the left appear rudderless and seem to be placing their hopes in a revival of the soft left within Labour, aided by pressure from the unions and other social movements. But that is to set the horizons low and ignore the real pain tens of millions will be subjected to in coming months and years.

It would amount to abandoning the mass of dissatisfied people to their fate – and indeed to other forces who would seek to fill that vacuum. As we have seen before in Britain and across Europe, such a vacuum can be filled by reactionary right-wing forces.

To prevent this, we need to ensure we build the fightback where it matters in the here and now: not in parliament, but in the streets and workplaces.  We need to make bold demands over the cost of living, like nationalising energy, transport and water, and securing peace in Ukraine.

If the two-party system is in peril, nothing will guarantee its collapse like the vibrant extra-parliamentary opposition from a militant labour movement. That is a precondition for us to rebuild an independent political pole to the left of Labour, and in opposition to establishment politics as a whole.

Before you go

Counterfire is growing faster than ever before

We need to raise £20,000 as we are having to expand operations. We are moving to a bigger, better central office, upping our print run and distribution, buying a new printer, new computers and employing more staff.

Please give generously.

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica is a member of Marks21 in Serbia and a supporter of Counterfire. He is on the editorial board of LeftEast and teaches at the University of Glasgow.

Tagged under: