Rishi Sunak at Westminster, March 2022. Photo: Number 10/Andrew Parsons Rishi Sunak at Westminster, March 2022. Photo: Number 10/Andrew Parsons

Lindsey German on Tory disintegration and why the fight for democracy is our fight   

Another momentous week in British politics and a continuing existential crisis for the Tory party. Liz Truss has the distinction of being the shortest-serving prime minister in British history – although you have to hand it to her, she managed to do a major wrecking job in the short space of time allowed. By this week, there will have been three prime ministers, four chancellors and three home secretaries in a year. No wonder the Tory grandees and the ruling class more generally are now desperately trying to restore some order and stability to the party.

Good luck with that one. While the Tories look like they have headed off the return of Boris Johnson (not least because they fear he would have to resign in disgrace again less than 6 months after the first time), the premiership of Rishi Sunak is unlikely to restore the party’s fortunes. The reasons for this are not hard to see: the 12 years of Tory government that we have now endured have left nearly everyone worse off, with crumbling infrastructure, the most serious crisis of the NHS ever, a housing boom which is about to go bust thereby worsening what is already a dire situation, and mass poverty in one of the richest countries in the world. The low wage, low productivity economy continues to lag behind its main rivals. Truss promised tax cuts and public spending growth, but the new chancellor Jeremy Hunt is going to deliver tax rises and public spending cuts, which will fall heaviest on the poorest. If Sunak wins, these will be presided over by the richest man ever to sit in parliament as an MP. His extensive property portfolio incudes a £7m mews house in Kensington and a flat nearby ‘for visiting family’, as well as a mansion in Yorkshire and an apartment in Santa Monica.

These policies are only the beginning of the new austerity, where already rising food and energy prices are causing misery for working-class people. The cost of debt, on which so many people rely to get them through the month, is rising fast. It will also mean much more expensive housing for mortgage holders and renters alike. And the increased cost of government borrowing and the so called ‘black hole’ in the economy means all of us will be paying more because of the bankers and money markets. This is a situation similar to those faced in Italy and Greece in recent years, and we can expect similar attacks on working-class living standards and organisation. It’s already happening with proposed changes to trade union laws to make it harder to strike, and the attacks on the right to protest going through parliament.

All this is presided over by a Tory party which is simply unfit to govern. The fact that some MPs and many party members would vote for Johnson after everything that he has done, and the fact that they voted for Truss in the first place given her patent incompetence on every level, tells you how decayed, corrupted and out of touch the Tories are. Even now, the horse trading no doubt going on between different factions speaks to a loss of any purpose apart from self-preservation.

Which brings me to the question of a general election. This demand it seems to me is absolutely obvious: the last election was three years ago, the situation has completely changed economically, the last two prime ministers have left with their reputations in tatters, and the decision about the new prime minister rests with Tory MPs and the crazed and unrepresentative Tory membership. Poll ratings for them have slumped and those of Labour have soared. Which is why they so desperately want to hang on. They have no intention of stepping down unless they are forced to.

That’s why this is an important demand. It is a basic right of democracy that the electorate has the right to throw out governments and elect new ones. As Thomas Rainsborough said in the Putney debates back in the 1640s: ‘Really I think that the poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it’s clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government’. Marx and Engels described themselves as ‘the extreme left of the democracy movement’ during the German revolution in 1848.

Fighting for democratic demands has been part of the workers’ movement from the very beginning. It is part of our wider fight for civil liberties. The right to vote, to have paid MPs not dependent on private incomes, to have time-limited parliaments, have been fought for by workers, including the Chartists who wanted annual parliaments. We should not abandon this tradition or minimise its importance. This government is a travesty of democracy and should be forced out of office by popular demand and action.

Those on the left who oppose such a demand are I think in a minority, but nonetheless it is an important argument. It rests firstly on the nature of Keir Starmer’s Labour and secondly on the nature of the parliamentary system. Starmer has moved systematically to the right since standing for leader in 2020, renouncing his pledges which would have meant some continuity with the Corbyn project, removing the whip from Corbyn himself, and driving out many good left wingers from the party. This process has not abated – the witch-hunt continues against the left, and Starmer is determined to minimise left presence in parliament under a Labour government. The democratic process barely exists in much of the Labour party.

Many have left the party, others expelled, others still remain but are unhappy with the politics. They have been treated very badly by the leadership and have every reason to dislike Starmer. His popularity still lags behind his party, and no wonder, given his dull technocratic approach. Nonetheless this situation is about intense dislike for the government, not support for him, and on present polling, Labour will win a landslide – and personally I think the Tory crisis will be enough to keep them out of office for a very long time. Therefore a general election will probably mean two things: a majority Labour government, and irresistible calls for Scottish independence. On both counts this is a step forward from the present situation. We can certainly expect little from a Starmer government and he is already talking about tough choices and not being able to do everything he wants because of the economic crisis.

However, getting rid of the Tories in itself sends a signal to the ruling class that there is mass opposition to their policies, and makes it harder for these to be driven through. It would also be a blow to the hideous bunch who run government at present – from Suella Braverman to Jacob Rees-Mogg. What Labour does in government depends on pressures from two sides: from the markets and the capitalist class on the one hand, and from the working-class movement on the other. The real power in society rests on those two forces, not the Victorian debating chamber in Westminster. Real change in society has always come as a result of movements, strikes and campaigns which eventually find their faint echo in parliament, We have to develop working-class power to present a challenge not just to one government but the whole system.

We have seen a welcome increase in strikes and industrial action, plus a growth of the anti-austerity movement, over the past months. But we are still in early days, and in a way the government has disintegrated faster than our side has been able to develop its full strength. So the crucial issue is developing that strength – extending and coordinating the strikes, escalating levels of action, and getting out on the streets. November 5th is the next opportunity to show that. There will be a mass national demonstration in London and a strike of RMT workers on the same day.

There is palpable anger in British society about the political and economic crisis. We have to build on that and extend it. But that requires taking millions of people with us in the fight for change. Ignoring that for many of them the question of a general election is the next political step leaves us open to the danger that we cut ourselves off from the growing movement. Instead we should welcome an election as the immediate means of getting rid of the Tories – but keep fighting whatever the government.  

This week: this is a really busy week. On Wednesday I have a UCU union meeting to discuss the ballot results. On Monday and Wednesday, I will be speaking at meetings for Stop the War. On Thursday I will be part of a panel responding to the annual Gandhi foundation lecture, and on Saturday speaking at a conference in solidarity with the people of Turkey. I’m also very excited to be part of organising the demo on November 5th which is looking good.

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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’.