Theresa May by Thierry Ehrmann, 2016 (detail). Graphic: Flickr Theresa May by Thierry Ehrmann, 2016 (detail). Graphic: Flickr

Tory calamity combined with Jeremy Corbyn’s increasing consolidation of the mainstream puts a premium on extra-parliamentary activity for rest of the left, asserts Lindsey German 

Meanwhile, on the deck of the Titanic, Theresa May is sounding increasingly desperate as she clings to a Chequers deal which practically no one in her party wants. The Tory conference in Birmingham hasn’t exactly got off to a good start. The fiasco of the app which has allowed Tory delegates to access the personal details of high profile figures, like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, makes last year’s embarrassment when the lettering came off the stage set as May spoke seem like positively efficient organisation.  

It seems hard to see how she can have a good conference – and that will be the second in a row. Johnson and Rees-Mogg are increasingly pushing the no deal Brexit line, the party is deeply split and, unfortunately for the historic party of the British ruling class, the larger part of its members favour a policy which the vast majority of big capital and its supporters see as a catastrophe.  

The Tory party itself is increasingly a party of the old, failing to attract young blood – or indeed new recruits of any age. It is marginalised in the big cities, its voting base is predominantly over 50, and it cannot command a majority in parliament. The 2016 referendum was meant to draw a line under the decades-long crisis over Europe, it did the opposite and propelled May into Downing Street. As the conference meets, the Tories are presiding over a society wracked with problems, facing the major test of Brexit, and with its austerity and pro-business policies widely hated by the electorate.  

May’s crisis has been exacerbated by Labour’s own conference held last week. After a summer when Jeremy Corbyn was kicked around by the media, the Tories, and his own right wing, the Tories must have hoped that the two issues of anti-Semitism and Brexit would ensure a fractious and divided conference. Instead, Corbyn managed to maintain a position of support for Palestine while condemning anti-Semitism – no mean feat given the bad decision of Labour’s NEC to accept the IHRA definition and all its examples last month.  

In addition, despite Keir Starmer’s best efforts to commit the party to a second referendum, the leader’s speech effectively avoided that trap and put pressure on May, saying that Labour would accept a deal if its conditions were met.  

As the deadline for Brexit moves nearer, and now that serious and binding decisions have to be made, we should be in no doubt about the extent of the political crisis at the heart of British capitalism. The Remain sections of business and industry are pushing very hard to alter the decision. There are increasing warnings about the effects of a no deal Brexit – most recently from the head of Toyota in Britain – claiming that a lack of customs union will do damage to its just-in-time production.  

Add the immediate issues of Brexit in terms of the long-term problems of British capitalism with low productivity, lack of investment, precarious employment, and declining industry and infrastructure, and you can see how deep this crisis is.   

It is no wonder that some Tories, like the Harlow MP Robert Halfon, are demanding that May addresses issues that are affecting working class people. The Tory austerity policies are deeply unpopular and are having a devastating effect on local communities as services and resources are cut to the bone. Austerity is helping to build up a well of opposition. The unprecedented sight of 3000 school heads marching on Westminster should have concentrated even the densest of minds. But of course for the Tories there is no real alternative to these policies as that would mean challenging the rule of the rich and powerful, so they will continue as long as we have a Tory government.  

Which is where Labour comes in. The party’s call for a general election is absolutely the essential demand. The pro Remain Labour MPs who dismiss it in favour of a second referendum are either playing a dangerous political game – wanting to reverse the referendum result without a change of government – or they are hopelessly ignorant of history.  

We all know that the Tories don’t want a general election which they would surely lose. But it isn’t totally in their hands. Their political crisis is deep and the left can make it deeper. This is what could make an election become unavoidable. For this to happen, it would require raising the level of struggle against them in every arena – on the streets, in the workplaces, in parliament and through local councils (which for the most part have played a pretty parlous role in implementing the cuts and austerity).  

This is how we ensure we get a People’s Brexit which protects jobs, builds infrastructure and increases the share of wealth going to working people. A second referendum, on the other hand, would be a boon to May, allowing her to paint Labour as ignoring a democratic vote and allowing her too to stay in office.  

Labour’s conference avoided a confrontation on this question, but the pro-EU wing of Labour is sizeable and it will keep trying to dragoon the left into supporting the EU institutions. This can only do damage to Labour, as Jeremy Corbyn understands.  

Battle stations 

The conference was, in most respects, a success for the left – delegates were left wing in their majority, the right was isolated, there was a tremendous show of solidarity for the Palestinians and many good policies were adopted on everything from industrial renewal to childcare. The fringe meetings and Momentum’s The World Transformed were very large – Stop the War’s fringe meeting, which I spoke at, had 200 people and turned away dozens more. It was a similar story over Palestine. There is a real thirst for discussion, and people want to hear speeches against imperialism and colonialism (please note those on the insular left who want to ditch foreign policy concerns).  

The downsides of the conference were the failure to win open selection and perhaps most damagingly the requirement of a threshold of 10% of MPs to get a candidate for leadership on the ballot paper. This is a very high threshold for a future left candidate, given the nature of the PLP. Both this and the IHRA definition, which went through the NEC, depended on the major unions for their support, which were in opposition to the majority of grassroots delegates.  

Nonetheless, Labour’s left has made major advances overall in the past two years. This is partly because the party conferences are reflecting the major political crisis in Britain today, and this crisis is opening up more people to left wing and radical ideas. That should not lead us to ignore the fact that the Tories will try to cling on to power and use their office to attack working class people; nor should we pretend that many of the PLP are not still bitterly hostile to Jeremy Corbyn. This means we need the mobilisations in industry and on the streets which can help strengthen Corbyn and weaken the Tories.  

Labour did well last week – but we need to up the level of struggle and militancy to prepare for the battles ahead. Because battles there certainly will be.  

What about the (women) workers? 

Everything I have heard and seen about Judge Brett Kavanaugh this past week convinces me that he is unfit for any public office, let alone a life appointment to the extremely political US supreme court. As in so many cases we have seen in recent years, his arrogance and sense of entitlement appear to deny him any self-awareness. He is helped in this by the president himself, who clearly believes none of this sort of thing matters – of course he doesn’t, since it would also disqualify him from office. I am in complete solidarity with his accuser and with the other women who have vocally protested and campaigned over this case.  

The publicity generated by the case is also welcome. But I would like to see similar coverage of other issues affecting women which are all too often ignored. I’m thinking here of the economic wrongs committed against millions of working class women – unequal pay, sexual harassment at work, denial of proper maternity rights, having to stand all day at work when you have your period, job segregation which deems ‘women’s work’ low paid, the unpaid domestic labour carried out mainly by women. I could go on.  

Individual cases are important to highlight issues of rape, sexual harassment, violence. But women’s liberation is nothing if it is not collective and reaches into the working class to ensure equality for all. So solidarity with the Birmingham care workers on strike and marching in Birmingham on Saturday; with the Glasgow women who have voted to strike against their employer, the City Council, for equal pay; with the catering workers on strike this week against insecurity and low pay. Wouldn’t it be good if they could get comparable sympathetic coverage of their disputes? But maybe that would be too close to examining the class divisions which underpin oppression.

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’.