Kill the bill protest, 15 March Kill the bill protest, 15 March. Photo: Steve Eason / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

Counterfire editorial on Tory corruption, a useless opposition and the new normal to be won

In the opinion polls Boris Johnson’s Tories are riding high. It’s possible they will even take the once rock-solid Labour seat of Hartlepool in the forthcoming by-election.

But on any wider view the Tories aren’t doing so well.

Still deeply unpopular because of their deadly mishandling of the Covid crisis, they are facing a series of revolts on the streets and in the workplaces.

The tensions created by the Covid crisis were already evident in last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, some of the most widespread and well supported protests against racism in many years even though lockdown made such protests illegal.

This year the protests over the police killing of Sarah Everard have fired an ongoing protest movement against the Police Bill.

And all this is taking place against a backdrop of a revival in industrial militancy.

Bus drivers, gas engineers, DVLA staff, tube drivers, Uber and Deliveroo staff, BT workers, Heathrow workers and nurses are just some of the groups of workers taking or threatening industrial action.

There has also been a dramatic recruitment wave across the union movement, especially among teachers who have been at the forefront of forcing the government into taking the national lockdowns seriously enough to bring the death rate down.

The new wave of industrial action is a product of the Covid crisis. That crisis has increased safety concerns in the workplace (as at the DVLA) at the same time as it has also threatened jobs and conditions. Where public protest has been both unsafe and illegal, workplace action has become both vital and possible.

And as we reach the end of the third, longer lockdown, pent up frustration has burst on to the streets ahead of the formal lifting of the ban on political protest in June. The Police Bill has added fuel to that frustration because it’s obvious that the Tories want to extend the opportunist use of Covid to ban political protest as far as possible into the new post-Covid normal.

How reckless the government has become is clear from Northern Ireland. Boris Johnson lied to the loyalists about Brexit and now that lie has been exposed: Northern Ireland is different and there is a border between it and the mainland. The explosion on the streets of the North is the result of that lie mixed with the frustration of lockdown. The long, fragile compromise of the Good Friday agreement is now under threat.

Only a wilfully stupid government would simultaneously risk setting fire to Northern Ireland and provoking unrest at home. No amount of Union Jack waving will protect the government from the backlash.

But for all the Tories’ problems there is one element in the political situation which is saving them from immediate disaster: the utter failure of the opposition under Keir Starmer.

The right of the Labour Party dreamt that getting rid of Jeremy Corbyn would be the moment of their rebirth.

But Starmer has made it his trademark to agree with the government on practically every issue of significance in a desperate bid to look ‘responsible’ and ‘adult’.

All this has done is to leave Labour much worse off than it was under Corbyn, despite the easiest ride that any Labour leader has had from the press.

Starmer just looks mind-numbingly dull, and his cabinet look even duller. Mr Dull and the Dullards can’t even outshine the enormously corrupt and incompetent Tory cabinet. And the electorate that gave Corbyn two of the highest general election votes since Labour’s 1997 landslide know it.

In fact, there is only one thing that the Grey Knight is good at: bashing the left. There is a vanishingly small chance that the Labour left will revive. Many have left the party, many have sunk into passivity, and those still active are not taking any ground from the resurgent right.

So, the viable strategy for the left remains in extra-parliamentary politics. We have a once in a generation chance to rebuild fighting unions. On the streets largely spontaneous protests are already providing a focus for resistance that is completely absent in electoral politics.

There’s a new normal to be won. A society where it’s normal to have a decently paid, stable job and a roof over your head. Where it’s normal to be cared for by a publicly owned  NHS. Where it’s normal not to be discriminated against on the basis of race, sex, or sexuality.

Right now, the old slogan, ‘organise, agitate, educate’, has never been more apt. We need socialist history and theory to infuse the new resistance, we need more people involved, and we need to be more organised than we are.

Originally published in Counterfire’s April freesheet

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