The new Tory cabinet at Westminster, October 2022. Photo: Flickr/Number 10 The new Tory cabinet at Westminster, October 2022. Photo: Flickr/Number 10

Lindsey German on the Tory reset, the war against anti-imperialism and unionism’s twilight  

The third Tory prime minister in a matter of two months already has the establishment breathing a sigh of relief. Our rulers want to banish the memory of the incarnation of sleaze and corruption that is Boris Johnson, and the catastrophic wrecking of the economy presided over by Liz Truss. They want it to be as though the last 12 years of Tory government never took place and that Rishi Sunak starts with a clean sheet, can stabilise the markets and go on to win a Tory victory.

Labour and some on the left tend to indulge this view. Will attacking him as too rich alienate the ‘aspirational’ middle classes? Will Starmer’s poll lead hold in the face of this latest Tory government which promises efficiency and integrity, echoing the Labour leader’s own promise? And can Sunak and his chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, do enough to ease the burden of the cost-of-living crisis to restore faith in the Tories?

The example of a similar revival of fortunes is often cited as John Major’s victory in 1992, when he managed to win a majority of 21 seats for the Tories, despite Labour leader Neil Kinnock holding a narrow poll lead and being widely expected to take office. This was a shock and a highly demoralising experience for the left given that only two years previously Margaret Thatcher had been driven out of office by protests against the hated poll tax. Yet Major’s political fortunes slumped very quickly as a result of two events both in the autumn of 1992: Black Wednesday when the pound sterling left the European Exchange Rate Mechanism and mortgage interest rates doubled in a day; and Michael Heseltine’s pit closures programme which would wipe out 31,000 jobs. This sparked a wave of protests and support for the miners, whose predictions of such events had been vindicated.

Major’s government never recovered its support – these two events cost it dear on a long-term basis – and although it was able to limp on, lost more than half its total seats in the Labour landslide of 1997. It seems to me that today we are much closer to the post 92 election position in terms of attitudes to the Tories. The appalling record of the Johnson government, including the lies over partygate during lockdown, and the Kwarteng/Truss budget which temporarily cut taxes for the rich and is now ushering in spending cuts and tax rises, have both had an effect on politics which is much more permanent.

In addition, let’s look at how bad things are for the Tories and for the British ruling class. They have presided over more than a decade of austerity, real wages have fallen since 2008, public services are at breaking point, the housing crisis is about to get worse, inflation is higher than for a generation, and the cost of energy bills is out of control. These are the basic economic facts which the Tories have neither the ability nor the intention of seriously redressing.

On top of this, there are the political issues: Johnson’s attempt at a comeback last week speaks of the level of support he retains with the Tory party membership, and his defeat by Sunak was only at the price of making deals with the Tory right – the most obvious, but not the only, one of these being to reinstate Suella Braverman as Home Secretary despite a major security breach for which she resigned only a week earlier. The divisions within a Tory party which resulted in the rejection of Sunak in favour of Truss only two months ago run very deep.

Then there is our side. Strikes are growing in number – my own union, the UCU, voted over 4-1 for strike action in a ballot which got through the government-imposed threshold. The rail and communications strikes continue, and teachers, civil servants, nurses and other groups are all planning to ballot. This means the highest level of strike action is likely for many years. But alone it will not be enough. We need to coordinate the strikes and take them further. And we need to link them through political campaigns and actions. The next major such event is this coming Saturday when rail strikes nationwide will take place alongside a major national demo called by the People’s Assembly.

The demo is backed by most major unions, many important campaigns and is attracting widespread support. RMT general secretary Mick Lynch has urged his members to join it after the picket lines. The organisers are asking supporters not to travel by train because of the strike, but transport has been booked from across the country. It can help demonstrate strong opposition to the government and generalise the movement against austerity and the cost-of-living crisis.

Its demands around these are linked to the call for a general election. This is a basic demand for democracy: why should this unelected prime minister continue, presiding over a government which contains people like Braverman, without the endorsement of the electorate. A Starmer government may be little improvement, but it would signal firstly a break with the main party of the capitalist class, the Tories, and secondly that growing numbers of workers were rejecting that Tory agenda. The Tories hold the democratic process in complete contempt, and we shouldn’t let them get away with it.

November 5th can be a key turning point in bringing the different elements of the movement together and in generalising our specific demands. Everyone should spend this week making it as successful as possible.

Don’t mention the war

I did several meetings last week about the Ukraine war and in each of them I was struck by how the arguments being put are so absent from mainstream media and indeed from much discussion on the left. Nato’s proxy war with Russia, as this clearly is, is reshaping politics around the world. Turkey’s Erdogan, who objected to Finland and Sweden joining the Nato military alliance, was rewarded when he eventually conceded by a clampdown on ‘terrorism’ – in reality this means easier extradition of Turkish refugees from those countries – and the delivery of F16 jets now sanctioned by Joe Biden.

The abhorrence at the destruction of civilian infrastructure going on in Ukraine because of Russian bombardment is completely justified, but as even the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen pointed out, this was exactly what was done by ‘shock and awe’ in Iraq 20 years ago, by our own government and the US. 

The protection given to projected huge increases in defence spending while there are major cuts in the cost of living of working class people is obscene, but justified by governments across Europe and north America as essential for ‘security’. In Britain alone this looks like rising to 3% of GDP.

I watched Netflix’s new German version of All Quiet on the Western Front at the weekend and thought it was a very good portrayal of the war from the point of view of young men who go to be soldiers. It seems we are allowed accurate and moving depictions of the horrors of war only years after they are over. But what they suffered is similar to what people suffer in Ukraine, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Yemen. Except this time they are much more likely to be civilians and face weapons unimaginable in 1918.

Wars and imperialism go hand in hand with the economic system under which we live. That’s why we have to talk about the war and insist that opposition to our government’s wars is a central part of working-class organisation.

Bitter Orange

The north of Ireland is having another election for one simple reason: the unionists who have controlled the state for 100 years are losing their power.  They refuse to take part in the Assembly, allegedly because of the Northern Ireland Protocol following Brexit, but in reality because Sinn Fein won a majority in the last election and would therefore take the post of first minister. Loyalist militias have issued threats to politicians in an attempt to force the issue.

The Tories have always favoured the unionists and indeed relied on them for government under Theresa May. They would be treating it very differently if Sinn Fein were behaving in this way. This denial of democracy is baked into the Orange state which has been gerrymandered from day one. Surely it’s time for a border poll so people in Ireland can decide whether they want a united country? No better time than the 100th anniversary of the sectarian state’s foundation.

This week: I will be discussing plans to mark next year’s anniversary of the Iraq war with international campaigners, and will be helping to organise the People’s Assembly demo. Hope to see you there.

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Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.