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Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson

Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson. Photo: Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

With the Tories revamping austerity and Starmer focused on attacking the left in Labour, the real opposition is on the streets

There are so many reasons to demonstrate at the Tories' annual party conference in Manchester in October. 

Boris Johnson's government has handled the coronavirus pandemic disastrously for the last 18 months. Too slow to lock down last March, too hasty in lifting protections and pushing people back into unsafe workplaces last summer, and too slow again when the second wave emerged. The result is one of the world's worst death tolls from the virus. There has consistently been too little financial support for working class people. The failure to protect people financially has often meant workers going into work when they should have been self-isolating, making it harder to suppress the virus. 

Protecting business profits has repeatedly been put ahead of people's lives. Ironically, this has made it harder to suppress the virus and therefore caused more economic dislocation than was necessary. The Tories' handling of the pandemic has also exposed deeper social problems - long-term underfunding of the NHS, poorly ventilated workplaces, the precarious nature of many people's jobs, the wastefulness of outsourcing huge inequalities and much more. 

The government now wants to make working class pay. Labour shortages are tilting the balance towards workers in many economic sectors, leading to rising wages. However, the Tories want to hold down pay in the public sector, with a pay freeze (a cut in real terms) for most workers. This is despite the pandemic illuminating how dependent our society is on people’s work: from lorry drivers to teachers, from NHS staff to supermarket workers, from cleaners to care workers. Those claps for carers and NHS staff are a distant memory for this government. The determination to cut Universal Credit to pre-pandemic levels is another example of the Tories’ priorities, as is the proposed increase to National Insurance - essen­tially a regressive tax that will hit the poorest workers the hardest.

The Tories’ failures stretch beyond the economy and the pandemic to two massive global issues: war and climate change. The fall of Kabul to the Taliban exposed the utter failure of two decades of invasions, wars and occupations, led by the US but loyally supported by the UK. These wars have been hugely costly in money, human lives and devastation of homes, land and vital infrastructure. They have also buried the notion that the US can re-shape the world to its own interests and revealed British foreign policy to be bankrupt.

The climate catastrophe, meanwhile, has been starkly illustrated by a series of extreme weather events and disasters over the summer. This is the backdrop to the high-profile COP26 global summit, hosted by the British government in Glasgow in early November. The priority of protecting corporate profits and the neoliberal model prevents this government from turning fine words into meaningful action. We have a government that is locked into a capitalist logic of environmental degradation, endless wars and global pandemics.

Where, then, is the opposition? Keir Starmer’s Labour Party has failed miserably to oppose the government’s pandemic measures at a series of crucial moments. It has been woefully meek in advocating policies that can benefit working class people as the economy revives. For example, Labour’s front bench has failed to push for a significant pay rise for NHS staff. It has been rowing back from the bold demands of the Corbyn years – from the Green New Deal to universal free broadband to a national investment bank - at precisely the time when the crisis calls for more radical measures.

Starmer’s team has instead focused on attacking the party’s own left wing. Former leader Jeremy Corbyn still, outrageously, has the Commons whip suspended. The great socialist film-maker Ken Loach is just one of hundreds, possibly thousands, of members to be expelled, with four organisations proscribed entirely. Labour’s right wing is on the rampage – against the Left, not against the Tories.

Starmer is determined to make Labour a safe government-in-waiting for the ruling class – to return Labour to its place as a suitable Team B for the capitalists and the British state. Yet this political weakness is preventing any revival of public support for the party, despite all the Tories’ failures, making it unlikely that it will become an election-winning force in politics.

The real opposition lies elsewhere. It is the anti-war movement that has been thoroughly vindicated by the chaos in Afghanistan – the result of a ‘War on Terror’ that began under a Labour government. And it is the anti-war and anti-racist movements that make principled calls for welcoming Afghan refugees to this country. It is the climate movement, mobilising for major protests around the COP26 summit, that puts forward radical demands that can address the scale of ecological crisis we face.

Above all, the protests that will greet the Tories at their conference in Manchester can bring together a wide range of social groups to oppose the government on many different issues. They will also point towards a different set of priorities and a better way of running society.

From this month's Counterfire freesheet

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