The government's difficulty is the left's opportunity, argues Lindsey German, as the Tories find themselves in disarray over the budget. Now is the time to fight back
Less than a year into the first Tory majority government for nearly 20 years, it’s all starting to unravel. George Osborne’s spectacularly disastrous budget has succeeded in doing two things: it has crystallised opposition inside the Tory party to his and David Cameron’s leadership, symbolised by the late-night resignation of Iain Duncan Smith; and it has galvanised protests against the government across the board on issues ranging from disability campaigners to teachers and parents opposing the full privatisation of education in the form of academies.
The headline stories here are twofold: that the disability cuts were a bridge too far, especially in a budget which yet again rewarded the richest with more tax cuts; and that Duncan Smith’s very public and angry resignation was about the tensions within the Tory party, some of which relate to the nearing EU contest.
But anyone who looks at this crisis - and it is an extremely deep crisis for the ruling party and for the Tories overall - must see that it reflects much bigger problems facing British capitalism, and the failure of what Tariq Ali calls the ‘extreme centre’ to provide satisfactory answers to them.
It is perhaps surprising that the split has appeared so deep: IDS doesn’t have a progressive bone in his body, and the onslaught he has launched against those on benefits of any description has been both brutal and petty-minded. So to hear him fretting about the disabled, worrying about the future of the poor and attacking any further cuts in disability benefits needs a certain suspension of disbelief. No doubt in part motivated by his deep dislike of Osborne personally, it is clear that for many Tories, Osborne is as unpopular as he is to the rest of us.
The smarmy condescension to his political opponents (and obviously to his supposed allies); his blatant short-term manoeuvring for his own political aggrandisement; his favouring of the rich at every budget; even his fetish for hi-vis jackets as he pretends to work on building sites: all have built a cross-party opposition to the man whose aim until last week was to succeed David Cameron as prime minister.
His troubles are tied to much deeper causes than his personality or political failings. The truth is, the Tories’ (and Blairites’) desire to cut the welfare budget is an intractable problem. Around half of all welfare spending is on pensions. The government’s repeated promises to preserve pensioners’ income and to maintain the ‘triple lock’ to ensure pensions rise, are not compatible with the aim of cutting the budget. There are two choices for them: to continue on this road, which means cutting other welfare payments to those of working age to the bone; or to abandon the promise to pensioners, which will provoke political uproar.
Both choices are in a context where benefits in Britain are actually very low; despite outrage from right-wing commentators, pensioner extras such as fuel allowance and transport are at least in part to compensate for low levels of state pension.
Any rich industrial society will have large bills for spending on caring for the old, young, sick and disabled. Investment in health and education should help to develop levels of skill, and increase the general wellbeing and health of the population. Yet successive government cuts over 30 years have eroded these.
Osborne’s increasingly erratic budgets are not dealing with some of the major questions facing British capitalism. Growth forecasts are based on the housing bubble and huge and growing levels of personal household debt. Britain remains a low productivity country, compared with all its main competitors. Jobs remain insecure for many, the young face both poor job prospects and increasing debts. Government spending on even essential infrastructure like railways and energy is set to fall.
The culture of greed, privatisation, destruction of public services and spaces, the tolerance of homelessness and poverty, pressure at work, record levels of inequality, have all contributed to a widespread sense of discontent. This is connected to growing anxiety about the younger generation facing record levels of debt, a lack of prospects and a future without secure housing or pensions.
The divisions over the EU in part reflect the uncertainty and insecurity caused by neoliberalism. What began as a means of supposedly placating Cameron’s anti-EU MPs, who clearly have wide support within the Tory party, is now turning into a major battle, with some of the major Tory figures, including Duncan Smith, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove leading the Leave campaign.
Observing Tory discontent and divisions from outside is a reasonable enough spectator sport - especially after months where the narrative has been all about the divisions within Labour under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. But it is not enough for the left. We have to exploit the divisions by advancing our own demands and our own struggles to stop the class-wide attacks that have come thick and fast since the Tories won a majority last May.
The strikes of the junior doctors are key to this, and their escalation is a sign of the implacable divisions between them and the duplicitous, privatising Jeremy Hunt. They deserve the solidarity of every worker and trade unionist.
Already the Tories have been forced into major retreats over disability benefit cuts, and have had to claim there will be no more welfare cuts in this parliament. They can be forced to retreat over the NHS and education as well. And they have to be held to account to ensure there is no attempt to reverse these claims in future months, or that other groups are hit instead.
Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is very important here. He highlighted the disability cuts in his response to the budget, and is in part responsible for the pressure on Cameron and Osborne that led to their retreat. More widely, the existence of a left, anti-austerity leadership in Labour gives a huge headache not just for the Tories but for the ruling class in Britain, which is solidly behind their austerity plans.
The attacks on Corbyn are precisely because they fear that he can form a government at some point in the future. His standing in the polls has been increasing recently, and further Tory disarray will only help him. This is also a problem for the Blairites who see their politics of the extreme centre falling away, and who apparently have a strategy of undermining him through public attack and backbiting. That only works if the Tories can appear united.
However, the strength of the left cannot rely simply on having a left Labour leader, welcome though that is. It certainly can’t rely on his success in parliament, where so much is stacked against him and his supporters. It has to rely on a strategy that builds movements for change, including through strikes, demonstrations and other forms of protest, and that relies on the strength of working people and their ability to change things.
There are many signs that a growing number of people understand this, and are prepared to act to change things. Society is extremely polarised in Britain and internationally, with the growth of the far right in many countries, but also the development of a new left, committed to equality, anti-racism and an end to neoliberalism. This is epitomised in movements such as those in France against worsening employment laws, in Hungary against the right-wing government, and in electoral support for left candidates in the US, Britain, Spain and Ireland.
The dangers of the right are serious, and the continued offensive by neoliberal governments has in some ways helped it grow. But there can be a left alternative, if the left understands the opportunities it faces and does everything it can to turn them to their advantage.
A good place to start is the People’s Assembly demonstration on 16 April.
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’.
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