Prospects for stopping the Tories can appear bleak following the general election, but Alex Snowdon argues that there are reasons to be hopeful
Boris Johnson’s new majority Tory government can appear all-powerful, with gloom pervading those who are opposed to it. The general election was indeed an awful result for Labour, particularly so for the left because of the hopes invested in Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and the leftwards shift in Labour over the last few years. But it would be mistaken to assume that the government is invincible or that everything is inevitably flowing the Tories’ way.
It is true that Johnson has some important things in his favour. His substantial majority guarantees that there will be little successful parliamentary opposition to his government. His Brexit legislation can be pushed through, but so potentially can much else.
Also, efforts to maintain discipline and unity on the Tory benches will be aided by the shift in the parliamentary Tory party’s composition: ardent pro-EU politicians have been swept out, while new MPs are mostly more in the Johnson mould.
Johnson will also be assisted by the Labour Party being overwhelmingly focused on a leadership election between now and early April. This internal focus by Labour could allow the prime minister vital time to establish his new government and its political agenda.
If Labour elects Keir Starmer as leader, all the better for the Tories. Starmer is more closely associated with Labour’s electorally disastrous turn to supporting a second referendum than any other individual. A Starmer-led Labour Party will struggle to win back those who deserted Labour at the last election.
The Tories could also be helped by the Equality and Human Rights Commission ruling against the Labour Party in its antisemitism investigation. We will see.
In what ways, then, are the Tories vulnerable?
Firstly, it isn’t all great for the Tories on the electoral level. Johnson has himself acknowledged that those who switched from Labour to Tory in key seats in the election may have been merely ‘lending’ Johnson’s party their votes due to the Brexit issue. They are not necessarily going to become long-term Tory voters and the seats won by the Tories in December will be highly vulnerable next time.
The Tories benefited from widespread frustration with the failure to deliver Brexit - and the manner in which Brexit dominated the election. They also gained from Johnson being relatively new as leader and his massive emphasis on representing something new, masking the reality that his party has governed for nearly a decade. The honeymoon cannot last forever.
Secondly, there are a number of major political flashpoints where the government will struggle to achieve popular consent and is likely to provoke discontent. The Iran crisis has already, in the early days of 2020, illustrated the dangers. War with Iran certainly wasn’t in the Tory manifesto and there is massive public wariness about getting dragged into another US-led war in the Middle East. Johnson, hitching himself uncritically to President Trump, will be taking huge risks if the conflict with Iran escalates further.
Domestic issues like the NHS are also difficult for the Tories. They now need to deliver on those promises about new hospitals and new nurses, yet early indications are that the government could be plagued by bad news stories about the NHS - including unacceptably long waiting times in Accident and Emergency.
There will be other sensitive issues where the widespread anti-austerity mood in society clashes with the reality of Tory government. This could get particularly serious if there is a downturn in the economy, as many forecasters are now discussing.
There is also the challenge of navigating the whole difficult process of moving beyond EU membership. Brexit is not, contrary to the wishful thinking of many Tory supporters, now done. There will be contentious trade deals and other problems for years to come. We can also fully expect there to be major difficulties over national and constitutional questions, with the movement for Scottish independence currently emboldened and the politics of Northern Ireland looking fraught.
Thirdly, there will be opposition to the Tories. Parliament may be greatly weakened as an arena for effective opposition, but a revival of anti-Tory activity in communities, in workplaces and on the streets is a real possibility. A shift towards the extra-parliamentary sphere is underway. Social movements and trade unions do not simply have to wait until a general election in 2024.
The early stirrings of a revived anti-war movement, through recent protests over Iran, are an indication of what to expect. If the government pushes ahead with an assault on the right of public bodies to deploy boycott and divestment measures against Israeli apartheid - under the ludicrous cover of combating antisemitism - there will be a backlash. The Palestine solidarity movement will mobilise to defend the right to take action against injustice and the abuse of human rights.
The government has to deal with the many effects of years of devastating austerity measures. Here there are numerous potential clashes, from NHS underfunding to public sector pay to schools policies like ramping up the role of Ofsted. Campaign groups and unions alike will be organising to resist any fresh attacks.
Strike action could be on the horizon too. The CWU has announced it will be moving ahead with a fresh ballot for national strike action by postal workers. Further UCU strike action in the universities is in the pipeline for February and March. These ought to be treated as rallying points for solidarity across the labour movement and may encourage action by other unions.
The left will need to focus on building the movements and strengthening the organising capacity of the unions in order to oppose the Tories. This needs to be accompanied by clarity of ideas and analysis. That involves holding firm to socialist politics and having a principled approach, especially when the state, media or political opponents seek to demonise the left and treat it as extremist, illegitimate or antisemitic.
It means being able to explain the numerous big issues facing us, circulating key arguments, and connecting ideas to action - whether it is the climate emergency or the Iran crisis, the weaponising of antisemitism or the threats to the cohesion of the United Kingdom. The Tories will not get it all their own way - and there is plenty of scope for socialists to make a difference.
Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union. He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).
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