We can't simply wait for the Tories to collapse - this weak Tory government has to feel even more heat than it does already argues Lindsey German
I have to be honest. When I said last week that the Tory conference was set up to be a miserable affair, and that the Manchester experience was not a pleasant one for them, I had no idea how bad it would turn out to be. Even before Theresa May’s seemingly endless public humiliation of a speech, the atmosphere at the conference was grim. The announcement that the party’s average age was 71 and that its membership hovered around the 100k mark (i.e. a fifth the size of Labour) was hardly designed to raise morale. Rows of empty seats evidenced the sparse attendance at a conference which appeared to have no highlights but plenty of lows.
It was impossible to look at the cabinet members watching May’s speech without seeing their deep despair at the whole fiasco. May is even weaker than she was before the conference and is only in office because there is a real fear of the alternative. The Tory grandee Lord Heseltine could barely conceal his patrician contempt when he raised the spectre of Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street. The attempt to shore up May this past weekend should not deceive anyone: this is a government on borrowed time. How much time it has is not possible to say with certainty, but it seems to me unlikely that this lot will go the full term.
Leaving aside personalities, accidents, subjective factors of various sorts, this is for, I think, three reasons. The first is that the Tories are trying to implement Brexit within a deeply divided party and country. They are also in an invidious position as the favoured party of the British ruling class which no longer represents the majority of that class on this issue at least. The second is that their policies are deeply unpopular in nearly all respects: recent surveys show strong majorities for public ownership, more spent on housing and public services, and generally for the sorts of policy being put forward by Jeremy Corbyn. The Tories’ hallmark of privatisation and inequality is not cutting it anymore, as even Theresa May has realised. The third factor is the state of the British economy, which has not recovered from the 2008 crash, and which is characterised by very high levels of public and private debt, record levels of inequality, falling real wages and productivity levels which reflect very low capitalist investment.
The Tories can’t escape or deal with any of these problems. Indeed, their whole instinct and life’s work has been to support the free market, private profit and attacking working people. Philip Hammond’s apology for the financial crash was not to those who have lost jobs or homes, but to the bankers.
What the conference demonstrates is that a weak Tory government has to feel even more heat than it does already. The protests at the conference were an important sign of the levels of active opposition to the government, and credit to the People’s Assembly for organising some splendid activities, including the challenging of the awful Jacob Rees Mogg.
There is a lot more coming. Next week, the communication workers launch two days of strikes after a huge turnout and positive vote, civil servants are balloting for strikes, rail workers have been striking over the past week. These strikes all need the maximum support. The protest on October 17th at parliament, supported by a range of unions, can also help galvanise opposition.
When the government is this weak, it is tempting to just wait for it to collapse. We cannot do that. The Tories are blatantly saying that the only reason to back May is that otherwise there will be big pressure for a general election. They will try to hang on regardless for another four years, as John Major did in 1992. It is pressure from below that can force them out and we have to keep building that pressure.
Labour’s up and optimistic: time to think ahead
Labour’s up in the polls, had a very good conference and its members are full of optimism about the future. That’s a much better place than most were predicting a year ago and reflects the extent that Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto chimes with public opinion – and in some cases doesn’t go as far as public opinion. With left parties, it isn’t usually enough, however, to just hang on and wait for the government to fall or to assume that this popularity will hold. There are times when the British ruling class positively accepts Labour as the alternative to a tired, decaying and exhausted Tory government. That happened with the post-war Attlee government, again with Wilson in the 60s, and with Blair in 1997. Even then, it uses its economic and ideological power to limit and trim Labour’s ambitions, and to ensure that Labour governments stay tame.
This time, it’s different. Jeremy Corbyn is the most left leader Labour has ever had, with a left programme. If Yvette Cooper, for example, had won the leadership, there would be few concerns about her frightening the horses in the City of London, or disturbing the drawing rooms of Belgravia and Kensington. Not true now. Corbyn stands far too much – in their opinion – for fundamental redistribution of wealth. So they will keep hammering the arguments against socialism, and the supposed chaos it will lead to.
These arguments have to be combated on their own terms, and Labour has to continue its effective campaigning in marginal constituencies, but it also has to think ahead. A Corbyn government – which, despite all the caveats, may be on the cards sooner rather than later – will face massive ruling class opposition. This will take multiple forms, including financial, media and even state attacks. These need to be challenged and defeated.
But there also has to be a very rapid and positive Labour agenda which can deliver for millions of people some real improvements in their lives. Abolition of student fees and debts is one, emergency housebuilding another. There also needs to be high and rapid levels of nationalisation, the creation of jobs, and the building of hostels and requisition of empty houses to end homelessness. Wages would need to be rapidly increased and the cost of living cut through rent controls, freezing and cutting fares and utility prices, and challenging the supermarket monopolies.
It is when people feel that they have a real stake in changes that governments are making that they will defend those governments. And the thinking about all this – where we need the collective experience and wisdom of the whole movement – needs to start now.
Try a bit harder?
I found watching the Andrew Marr and Robert Peston shows on Sunday rather depressing. Marr interviewed Nicola Sturgeon, SNP leader, and Ruth Davidson, Scottish Tory leader. By contrast, Peston interviewed Ruth Davidson and Nicola Sturgeon. Both programmes seemed pretty much Labour-free zones, although the Labour Party is leading in the polls in Britain and is second in Scotland. Questioning was anodyne and both interviewers seem to suggest that Ruth Davidson is some sort of political genius because she went down well at Tory conference and is under 50. Maybe. Or maybe the flatness of the surrounding countryside in the Tory party makes her look rather better than she is. Either way, can these programmes try a bit harder to reflect what is actually going on in British politics or is that too much to ask? Probably, given the record of mainstream media and its refusal to look reality in the face.
Keep on the ball
The Football Lads’ Alliance march against terrorism in London last Saturday was worrying. Luckily, by accounts, smaller than the 20k they predicted, nonetheless a few thousand. I signed a statement of concern about the far right influences behind this organisation which Stand up to Racism produced, and they held a protest at Downing St. There is a long tradition of fascists and the far right using wider organisations to group people around them on supposedly ‘soft’ issues, in this case, anti-terrorism. This then becomes a means of recruiting to a much more overt fascist organisation. There will no doubt be individuals on this march who want nothing to do with such politics, but there are clearly those – like EDL leader Tommy Robinson – who will use the march for their own ends.
The images of the march show how it was unlike the sorts of vigils and protests against terrorism we have seen in places such as Manchester or Barcelona in recent months. It was basically a lot of often aggressive white blokes. We must continue to expose the links with the far right and stop them using this issue to build support.
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’.
More articles from this author
- Where do we go from here? – election briefing 13 December
- We have a world to win – election briefing Polling Day
- Ignore the naysayers and keep fighting – election briefing 11 December
- Lindsey German: don't underestimate how far we've come - video
- One nation or the one percent? - election briefing 10 December
- Ten points to remember before polling day – election briefing 9 December
- Antisemitism, politics, and voting Tory - election briefing 6 December