UK Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: Flickr / Teacher Dude UK Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: Flickr / Teacher Dude

The establishment is losing control, but there is a way out for them, if the left lets its guard down, warns John Rees

From Theresa May’s admission that voters don’t trust the Tories with the NHS, to her decision to brand Russia as a strategic enemy, to the EU’s outright rejection of her plan for Brexit, the week has once again shown that the government has neither the ideas or the political resources to govern. But, in truth, the crisis of the Tory government has much deeper roots.

There are times when ruling parties, indeed whole ruling classes, lose their way and become so out of kilter with the times that new opportunities for the ruled open up before them.

In the 1930s, the British ruling class had no solution to the slump and were so catastrophically tied to a policy of appeasement with Hitler that they almost opened the country to a Nazi invasion. They were only saved by a rogue Tory at the head of what was, in essence, a wartime Labour administration. And in 1945 even the rogue Tory was tossed unceremoniously aside as the welfare state was created.

Such a fate is, in one sense, an ever-present danger for any ruling class, because they are a tiny wealthy minority whose interests are opposed to the majority. They may rupture the partial consensus that they have with the rest of the society and so endanger their own ability to rule.

Such ruptures can take a number of different forms. To understand these, we have to first be clear that whole socio-economic classes are never directly represented politically by a single organisation. 

The majority consciousness of the British working class can be described sociologically: its views on nationalisation, immigration, the NHS, the gap between the rich and the poor and so on are all available, most authoritatively through the British Social Attitudes survey. We, in Counterfire, have made a careful analysis of this data as a foundation of our political strategy.

But the effective organised political presence of the working class is by no means a direct correlate of this consciousness. The political presence of the working class is expressed in the trade union movement (some 6 million out of a working class of perhaps 40 million), the Labour Party, smaller left-wing organisations, and spontaneous (like the response to Grenfell) or organised movements of protest (like the Stop the War Coalition or the People’s Assembly).

And of course, all these institutions shape as well as reflect the totality of working class consciousness in specific and particular ways.

The same is true of the British ruling class. The capitalist class is never directly present as a political ruling body. There is no committee where the heads of Amazon, Bae, BP, Sainsbury’s and so on all sit down and decide the laws to be passed, the foreign policy to be pursued, etc. etc. It too depends on organisations – the CBI, the National Farmers Union, the Bank of England, the Tory Party, political lobbyists – to articulate a myriad of views from within the ruling class.

In part, this is because they are all in economic competition with each other. They are, as Marx said, ‘a band of hostile brothers’. From this fact arises the need for a separate realm of politics (as a process by which state power is achieved and wielded). Marx wrote that ‘the executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie’. Contained in this definition is the understanding that there are some affairs (competition between rival members of the bourgeoisie) which are meant to be beyond the state and the understanding that the common affairs have to be agreed on through a process which is not automatically guaranteed to be a success.

Moreover, the presence of the working class, especially the organised working class, interferes with this process. The working class may not be able to capture the capitalist state for its own purposes, but its actions can limit, confuse, and disorganise the ruling class in its process of controlling state power.

There is a lot that can go wrong in this process. The ruling class can lose control, or partially lose control, over the essential transmission belts which get sections of the rest of the society to tolerate their rule. They can alienate sections of the middle class or that third of the working class which traditionally votes Tory. The media, or parts of it, may become hostile. 

Then, again, the ruling class’s usual forms of political representation can be become divided, internally or externally (as UKIP did the Tory party). Then it’s that their chosen political party or parties can fail to represent a coherent strategy for capital as a whole. 

New outbursts of working class insurgency can then further disable the ruling class’s ability to go on in the old way.

It is a sign of the deep crisis of the British ruling class that it is currently beset by all these pathologies at the same time. Let’s look at some of the symptoms.

Underlying all the problems of the British ruling class is the economic malaise that has beset the economy from at least the Second World War. The UK economy has a long-term crisis of capital investment and, therefore, a productivity crisis. This has been exacerbated and not solved, as its boosters predicted, by the onset of neo-liberalism, privatisation, and deregulation. It has been further deepened by the UK’s dependence on the financial sector. None of this has been resolved by EU membership. Moreover, the growth of China and the other BRICS economies are presenting further dramatic challenges to the post-war economic order to which the ruling class seems to have no strategy response. 

Piled on top of this long economic decline is a much more recent crisis of ruling class representation. For the first time since the Second World War, the Tory party no longer represents majority ruling class opinion. Most of the largest institutions of British capital are pro-EU. When David Cameron sought to resolve Tory party internal divisions over Europe by means of holding a referendum he put short-term party considerations ahead of representing the settled opinion of the overwhelming majority of the British bourgeoisie. Now a Tory government, further weakened by Theresa May’s attempt to overcome this dilemma by holding an election in which she lost her Commons majority, is seriously divided, internationally enfeebled, and unable to square the circle of exiting the EU on terms acceptable to British capital and its media spokespeople.

The long decline of US imperialism and the UK’s unquestioning attachment to it had already weakened the ruling class by involvement in the Afghan, Iraq and Libyan debacles. But the election of Trump, and the exit from the EU has left the British bourgeoisie more internationally isolated than at any time since 1939. May would like to cosy up to Trump but his own isolationist bent and unpredictability, and public hostility in Britain to such a manoeuvre, is limiting the scope for this. At the same time, the breach with the EU, and the EU’s stance that this requires a punishment beating of the UK to deter others, is leaving May as the Theresa-no-mates of the diplomatic world. May’s attempt to use the Salisbury poisoning of a British agent, and her general ratcheting up of anti-Russian rhetoric, is an attempt to dragoon other countries into support for Britain. It is likely to have only limited effectiveness.

All this is feeding a wider crisis of hegemony for the ruling class. Chris Nineham has documented this in his book How the Establishment Lost Control, and I will not repeat that analysis here. Sufficient to say that on the two key issues, austerity and foreign policy, the government is a very long way from assuming that it has popular support. This mood crashed into the mainstream with Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour Party, was reinforced by his second leadership victory, and entrenched by the 2017 general election result.

A ruling class solution?

There is a ruling class solution to this crisis. Counter-intuitively, it is a Labour government.

If a new Keynesian ‘national reconstruction’ investment programme could be implemented without sparking a revolt from below then sections of the ruling class would, without liking it, probably accept it. The Financial Times and others are already canvassing this thought. 

If Labour looks like it’s the best option for a soft Brexit (or reversing Brexit if the right and centre of Labour beat down Jeremy Corbyn), then business will be very happy.

If Labour’s current policy of support for Trident, backing for NATO, and an increase in defence spending (rather than Jeremy Corbyn’s views on these matters) remain when Labour takes office then there will be no change either from Tory policy or the long-standing Atlanticist commitment of the UK government. Britain’s traditional rulers will be more than happy to tolerate a little peace rhetoric as long as substantive policy remains unchanged.

And of course, it goes without saying that a Labour victory would go a long way to restore faith in the system that has been ebbing for decades. The ruling class will be happy with that… and even happier with the thought that Labour could fritter away that goodwill by compromises in office.

Preventing a ruling class regroupment

The more Labour stays radical, indeed becomes more radical, the less room for regroupment the ruling class will have. What is necessary here is a programme of more nationalisation, not less; more spending on the NHS, not less; more trade union rights, not just the repeal of Tory laws; more council house building; not the half measure of social housing. 

Foreign policy cannot be ignored, and it cannot remain a carbon copy of Tory policy. As the whole Russophobia drive shows, the Tories regard this as their secret weapon against Corbyn. It can only be disarmed by a forthright defence of the positions that Jeremy Corbyn holds but which are not Labour policy. There is no excuse for this remaining the case. Corbyn supporters now control Labour from top to bottom. The Tory foreign policy has to go. This is a matter of principle… but it is also a matter of electoral pragmatism and of self-survival.

Above all, extra-parliamentary struggles have to be strengthened. This is where the real power of the labour movement and the left lies. The UCU strike was stronger than most predicted and the rank and file revolt that threw out the first deal was something we haven’t seen for many a year. And protests over the NHS were critical in keeping the Tories on the back foot over the winter. 

And if we look abroad there are real signs that social polarisation can build the left as well as the right. The Spanish trade union organised women’s strike was huge, there is an international revival of a mass women’s movement, and the protests in France are rightly drawing parallels with the events of May 68.

Now, we are not in a crisis like that of 1968 yet. But that is the direction of travel. Labour party politics alone will not be enough to win through a social conflagration on that scale. Indeed, it was part of the ruling class solution to that last crisis in the late 1960s and 1970s. That cannot happen again. And it need not. If the left and the extra-parliamentary struggle set the pace, the methods, and the goals of the struggle. We want a Corbyn led government for sure, but that is only the start of what is necessary, and only the lowest of our ambitions.

John Rees

John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.