Conor Burns in 2017. Photo: Wikimedia/Chris McAndrew Conor Burns in 2017. Photo: Wikimedia/Chris McAndrew

Lindsey German on the black hole of parliamentary decay and revolts in Iran

The resignation of Tory minister (and close ally of Boris Johnson) Conor Burns, and his suspension from the whip, for ‘serious misconduct’ – allegedly for touching a young man’s thigh in a hotel bar at last week’s party conference – is the latest scandal to be revealed in the putrid cesspit that is the ‘mother of parliaments’. Labour MP Chris Bryant’s Twitter feed helpfully gave us the background:

‘So far in this parliament, 16 MPs have been suspended from the House or have resigned their seat for various misdemeanours. At least five more are under investigation. This is completely unprecedented. No parliament has ever seen this before. And we’ve two years to go’.

Britain is on its fourth prime minister in six years. The latest – elected by Tory members alone – is imposing an austerity regime on us in the name of ‘growth’ which is already forcing many to pay much higher mortgages and will impact heavily on the poor (even after the humiliating reversal of the top rate tax cut). Liz Truss, just a month into office, has been a disaster for the Tories, polling even lower ratings than Boris Johnson at his nadir. Yet she continues with her vicious social experiment on our lives and living standards, supporting fracking, enterprise zones which will result in unsafe work and environment and lower wages. She has also refused to launch a public information campaign about saving energy because it is redolent of the ‘nanny state’.

Put to the test of an election, Truss would no doubt crash and burn. But such is the system that she is under no obligation to go to the polls for another two years. Her position is representative of a hollowed out process of democracy which is both individually and institutionally corrupt.

After 12 years of Tory rule, not only is society in tatters as a result of their policies, but those who claim to represent us are – with a few honourable exceptions – utterly discredited, mired in scandal, reeking of corruption, and working in an environment where levels of sexism are notorious. An MP watching porn in the chamber of the Commons is symbolic of the sense of entitlement which pervades the place. Yet these people, whose earnings and expenses cushion them from rising energy prices, and whose food and drink is subsidised, are never happier than when they are denouncing those much less fortunate than themselves and promoting policies which benefit the rich while making most of us poorer. We saw plenty of that at last week’s conference, where Suella Braverman – incredibly the Home Secretary – stated that her ‘dream’ was to see deportation flights to Rwanda, while also berating those who ‘choose’ to top up low wages with benefits.

But it isn’t just about instances of bad and sometimes criminal behaviour on the part of MPs. The whole parliamentary system, supposed to represent the highest form of democracy, is riddled with vested interests, corruption, lobbying. If that’s true of the Commons, where after all MPs have to face re-election every five years, the state of the second chamber is even worse. The House of Lords is completely unelected, pointless politically, and a home for those whose privilege outweighs their ability by some considerable distance.

The leak of new proposed lords and ladies makes this clear. The Tories are proposing among others Paul Dacre, former editor of the Daily Mail, the right-wing historian Andrew Roberts, Tory donors, former MPs and rightist commentators. Labour’s list is shorter but not much better. It rewards several who played a key role in defeating Jeremy Corbyn, including two former MPs, Ruth Smeeth and deputy leader Tom Watson, former Unison general secretary Dave Prentis and – sorry to say – Frances O’Grady from the TUC. In the middle of the biggest strike wave in years it is to say the least regrettable that the leader of the trade union confederation is making this move.

What is the point of these appointments other than to stuff an already overcrowded Lords (at over 800 much bigger than the elected Commons) and to give the recipients a very comfortable and well-resourced job for life? At a time when all-out class war has been launched on workers and when we are all expected to take a pay cut in real terms, those who are supposed to represent our class should not be accepting honours and ermine. Once you do, even if you start off with good intentions, the institution changes you, not the other way round.

I was appalled for example to see the Green Party’s now ennobled Natalie Bennett dressed in uniform and extolling the virtues of politicians getting involved with the military, just at a time when support for Nato and big hikes in military spending are going to mean even deeper cuts in other areas such as health and education.

The truth is you’re not going to fight the cost-of-living crisis from the House of Lords. The Commons plays the usual parliamentary game, where the Tories’ mandate from the last election is respected even though it bears little relationship to present policies. Keir Starmer’s Labour is being boosted in the polls by Truss’s ineptitude but he offers little in the way of fundamental change. Refusing to support strikes, echoing Tory scapegoating on immigration, fully in support of defence spending rises and the Ukraine war. Those left MPs who do support the unions’ fight and who want a radical economic agenda are in a marginalised position in the Labour Party under the Starmer leadership, not least because of their capitulation over the war in Ukraine earlier this year.

So the fight in this class war is going to be outside parliament – and will be against the Tory government, Labour’s weak opposition and the majority of MPs as well. This is already leading to a change in politics: there are already more strikes and industrial action, and there have been a range of local demos in recent weeks. I was very heartened by the demo in Birmingham last weekend at the Tory party conference which was big, working class, ethnically diverse and which got through the police cordon right up to where delegates were registering. I have no doubt it contributed to the sense of panic which led to the reversal of the top tax rate only hours later. But that is only the beginning. We don’t have two more years to wait for a general election: the human and social cost is too great.

We need maximum unity and numbers for the People’s Assembly demo on 5 November in London and in support of all the campaigns against the new austerity. The time is now and it will mean a new politics which challenges the Westminster consensus on the streets and in the workplaces.  

Women, life, freedom: a mass movement

There are amazing scenes from Iran where often very young women are demonstrating for their rights. The movement began with the death of a woman in the custody of the morality police, detained because she was not wearing the appropriate head covering. As protests grew, other deaths have followed and the movement has spread far beyond the question of whether women should wear the hijab. The Iranian authorities have cracked down further, but the protests and strikes continue and are, according to reports, spreading to working-class areas and involving men, including those with more traditional attitudes.

The crackdowns are justified by claiming these are US-inspired protests. There is always outside interference in Iran for political reasons, including from Israel and Saudi Arabia, but it is obvious that these are mass protests against a series of genuine grievances. Schoolgirls demonstrating without hijabs is a very brave thing to do and they and the other demonstrators and strikers deserve our support. I have little time for the liberals who hail these events as liberatory for women but who refuse the right of French Muslims to wear hijabs in schools and some buildings. My view is that it is a woman’s right to choose whether they want to cover their heads for religious reasons. It is not the right of the state to decide.

I have protested in support of these demands. I have also demonstrated against US or any other outside intervention in Iran. Such intervention will not bring freedom or women’s liberation for the mass of Iranian women or men. It is up to the Iranian people to decide their government and to fight against laws which it sees as unjust. That is what is happening at the moment, and it seems possible to me to support and show solidarity with Iranian women while opposing any attempt to use this movement to bring about more sanctions and wars.

This week: I will be speaking at a Stop the War event in London’s Muswell Hill, despite attempts to prevent it. I will also be addressing Colchester Trades Council on the same issue and writing a short contribution to a collection on the arms trade.

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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’.