The tide is turning against austerity. How can we take advantage of the Tories’ crisis?
What a difference a year makes. Less than twelve months on from the Tories return to power they are in deep crisis. The media hoopla over the Tories triumph and Labour having to ‘learn the lessons of defeat’ and shift further to the right now seem like a distant memory.
The victors of last May, Cameron and Osborne, are both now marked men, dragged low by the Panama scandal and a botched Budget respectively.
And then there is the referendum. The Tories inability to define a clear and agreed strategy for Britain’s relations with Europe will provoke further upsets ahead of the vote itself which may now well upset the whole EU applecart.
How different all of this is from the smug commentary of last summer when the media were lecturing us about the political genius of the Tories heir apparent, George Osborne, who by redefining the centre ground was creating a new Conservative hegemony.
The crisis facing the right is not unique to Britain. Across Europe and US the tide is turning against neo-liberalism. People are rejecting the political establishment and looking for an alternative. Jeremy Corbyn is one expression of this, the rise of Bernie Sanders is another.
If the Great Recession did not dispel the final illusions in neoliberalism then austerity certainly has. This repackaging of Thatcherism has not restored economic growth. Instead wealth has been transferred from the great majority to a small minority. They are now richer than ever, whilst most people feel poorer.
How different too it is turning out from what some predicted would be a “carnival of reaction” ahead of the Euro referendum. Nigel Farage has been a near-total irrelevance in the campaign, and both the official Leave and Remain sides have been more than happy to talk up the “threat” of migration to make their case.
Far from British politics shifting further and further to the right in the lead up to the vote, precisely the opposite has happened. Opposition to further cuts to disability benefits is overwhelming. Clear majorities support nationalisation for steel – including a majority of Tory voters. Repugnance at tax evasion is visceral.
Fortunately we have at last in the shape of the Corbyn-led Labour party a parliamentary opposition deserving of the name. It is giving expression to the feelings of millions of ordinary people. This is a massive and important change.
Osborne’s bizarre attempt to position himself as the friend of ‘hard working families’ was sunk as the Labour front bench focused their fire on him and the ongoing and vicious assault on the welfare budget. Osborne’s rapid retreat on such a key measure may prove fatal to his leadership ambitions, IDS’s petulant resignation being just the final twist of a knife that others had inserted.
Having done for Osborne, Cameron is now in the firing line. The relentless attack on his “private” financial arrangements have forced him into the open. The pretence of the Camerons being just another average middle class family have been torn away to reveal them as being members of a self-serving and tax-evading elite now loathed by much of the country.
How different from the days when Labour leaders would compete with the Tories in talking about ‘welfare reform’. The Labour Party was created as an expression of working people’s desire for change. It should speak up for ordinary people.
Corbyn, McDonnell and Abbott rightly express the feelings of millions. But it is the movements against war and austerity which have shifted mass opinion. The victory over Personal Independence Payments was only made possible by six years of militant campaigning by the disabled against IDS and the DWP.
The EU question
Corbyn cannot go further than the moment though and that is why he is stymied on the EU question. There is no such consensus in the movement on this and so do the best he can do is sit on his hands, which is still better than rushing to the save Cameron as the Blairites want him to do. If we vote to leave they may well try and move against him. The support of the movements which got him elected will then be key.
They may come sooner though if the results are bad on 5 May. We all hope that Labour does well even if few on the left feel any enthusiasm for its candidates, especially in London and Scotland. There is still much that needs to change in the party.
The key battle though is not on the Labour benches, it is the battle of ideas, the struggle to change the minds of millions of people. And here the movements are central. Fortunately they are experiencing lift off. Demonstrations and protests are now firing off across the country and are even being felt in Tory heartlands.
From small local protests to the People’s Assembly’s national demonstrations, the feeling of mass political radicalisation is palpable. This shift is also being expressed through industrial action. The movement is now being led by doctors and teachers but there is also clearly a new mood of militancy in workplaces across the country.
That means continuing to set a political lead from the left. We must continue to build the movements and what the election of Jeremy Corbyn last summer represented. The enemies on his own side have not gone away.
But we must keep our eyes on the main enemy: the Tories. They are much weakened, but a wounded beast can also be more vicious. Their crisis is our opportunity. We must strike the Tories again and again until they break and fall from power.
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