The ruling party of the ruling class may be in limbo but our side has no time to lose, argues Lindsey German
It is a simple if not much remarked fact that there isn't really a government in this country. While this might be more usual in some countries used to coalitions, it is quite exceptional here. It is creating complete farce in parliament. Last week Labour had to act as tellers against their own motion, as well as for it, in order to force a vote on universal credit. The motion was passed unanimously, with one Tory MP joining the opposition parties but all the others abstaining. In fact, the Tories imposed a three-line whip to abstain.
It highlights the fear of May and her government that any rebellion from their own ranks will lead to a Jeremy Corbyn government, hence their desperation to stop any such outcome. This means pretty much doing nothing. Already the Brexit bill has been delayed again for fear of defeat, and little else controversial is even contemplated. The effect of the universal credit fiasco will be to force the Tories to make some concessions, but they will leave the main plan intact. Their lack of connection with reality means that they think reducing the waiting time from six to four weeks is really going to make a difference. They can't abandon the whole scheme because this would mean admitting their criminalising of the poor was wrong.
A government in office but without the ability to do much apart from continue on the path which made it so unpopular in the first place. That is the unfortunate situation in which the cadaver-like Theresa May finds herself. Riven internally, in a death embrace with the DUP, but continuing with its austerity and pro-business policies, this is a government which deserves to be driven out as soon as possible.
Doing this isn't easy, and it needs the battle to be opened up on many different fronts. We must do everything to defeat universal credit which is really a matter of life and death for some people. We must demand investment in the NHS, education and housing, not the piecemeal changes that May thinks will win her votes. We should back Jeremy Corbyn and Labour every step of the way in their fight in parliament. But we have to go much, much further to change, not just government, but the whole way in which society is going. That means strikes, demonstrations, direct action. These are the ways we can further weaken the government and underline its illegitimacy.
The Tory gravy train
One person who won't be looking to universal credit anytime soon is that blatant political appointment Baroness Dido Harding. She was announced as head of NHS Improvement last week. Harding was formerly in charge of that paragon of private enterprise, TalkTalk. This includes the period when it suffered a cyber-attack in which management was strongly criticised. Her salary then was around £6.8m. She is a good friend and Oxford contemporary of David Cameron.
This political patronage was added to by the news in a Guardian letter that another Lady - this time Camilla Cavendish, former Times journalist and Downing Street top adviser to the Tory government, and, guess what, Cameron and Osborne's contemporary at Oxford - is heading up the body which oversees social work. So two Tories with no experience in the areas concerned (privately educated and using private medicine), with no sympathy for the poor, and with past careers which have shown no evidence that they are aware of or understand the problems of the public sector, are heading up bodies where their aim will be to implement cuts, enforce savings and intensify work pressures. Why should anyone put up with this?
Why this blind spot about the EU?
The debate on the left over Leave or Remain last year tended to be very much about racism, with many Remain supporters worried that a Leave vote would lead to a rise in racism, and therefore could not be countenanced. I didn't agree with this reasoning but I respected it, and many left Remainers, in turn, said that they agreed with much of the left critique of the EU, although they wouldn't vote to Leave. Today, I hear very few left Remainers criticising the EU for anything. It’s as though there's a suspension of criticism because any word against the EU plays into the hands of the right.
This is particularly concerning since the actions of the EU are themselves playing into the hands of the right. Let's look at three. The first is Catalonia, where the EU is backing the appalling and anti-democratic actions of the prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, against the independence movement in Catalonia. This is directly opposite to its attitude over Kosovo in particular, where behaviour like Rajoy's would probably lead to war against Serbia. The right of national independence was fostered and encouraged throughout Eastern Europe, leading to the creation of a number of new states. This was to weaken the old Eastern bloc countries and make them more amenable to western influence and investment. Now the EU fears the break-up of Spain and it’s a very different matter.
The second issue is highlighted by the murder of the investigative journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia, in Malta. The country is riddled with corruption, is a centre of money laundering and gangsterism, all of which she did much to expose. Like Cyprus, which also joined the EU in 2004, Malta plays a convenient role, not least in issuing passports in exchange for large amounts of cash and in helping ease the financial constraints of non-EU nationals. This sort of stuff may be against EU rules but it is tolerated.
The third issue is the EU attitude to the far right. The Austrian Freedom Party FPO is likely to enter government. When this last happened the EU imposed sanctions. Don't see that happening this time, just as rightward government lurches in Poland, Hungary and now likely the Czech Republic have all been ignored. The open breaches of requirements to fulfil quotas for taking refugees is just one example.
While bemoaning ‘populism’ (in which distinction is never made between left and right) the EU leadership refuses to seriously challenge the growth of the far right. Instead, it blames the right’s success on a refusal to accept that all is good with neoliberalism.
Oxford: a tale of two cities
I spent Saturday at the graduation ceremony at Ruskin College Oxford where I had been invited as guest speaker to address graduates and their friends and families. I really like these ceremonies, which, as I told them, I had come to late in life. When I graduated from the University of London back in the 1970s we boycotted graduation, I think over apartheid South Africa. This one was great. Ruskin is a unique college, formed in 1889 to provide education for working class and trade union activists. It, therefore, is the antithesis of its snobbish near neighbour, Oxford University. Given recent statistics about how hard it is for working class people to get into Oxford, especially if they are black or minority ethnic, perhaps the university should take a leaf out of Ruskin's book. The graduates were ethnically diverse, many of them women. The two graduate speeches were given by BAME women, and were both inspiring. Coming back to the station I passed the Said Business School, named after a Saudi-Syrian billionaire arms dealer, one of its buildings dedicated to Margaret Thatcher.
Unfortunately, Oxford maintains its identity as the university of the rich and powerful, and its ideas and education reflect that. It doesn't want to truly democratise because the whole point of Oxford and Cambridge is that they train and perpetuate the elite. That's their job. It's why very high proportions of mainstream politicians have Oxford PPE degrees, why most national media outlets including the BBC are run and staffed by Oxbridge graduates, as are the judiciary, the civil service and much of industry. It's also why, even though only 7% of school students are educated privately, they make up almost half the Oxbridge admissions. Despite Ruskin's aim of educating the working class, education is riddled with class division. It is so heartening to see people overcome the obstacles in their way to challenge this division.
The ghosts of Franco
I think it's hard not to agree with the Catalan government that the latest action by the Spanish is the worst infringement of their rights since Franco. It's like watching the destruction of a state while they claim they are trying to save it. There can be nothing better designed to further strengthen the desire for independence and the feeling that national identity is being oppressed than to take away Catalonia's right to govern.
Barcelona was the first place I ever visited in Spain, and that was only after Franco died. Mostly, before that, the left didn't go, although some did for political purposes. The dying years of Franco rule were repressive and horrible, with Basque nationalists and socialists in particular subject to imprisonment and execution.
I remember one night we nearly got barred from the White Horse pub near the London School of Economics when one of the London dockers I was with just physically attacked and kicked the jukebox when the song ‘Viva Espana’ came on. There was a lot of anger about Franco from many people who still remembered the Spanish civil war.
Barcelona and its history were central to the civil war, its proud tradition stressed most famously by George Orwell in Homage to Catalonia. It was, in the 1970s, still very poor and working class, the food and drink very basic, physically incredibly beautiful but without many tourists, and of course denied any national autonomy which was anathema to the old dictator.
Its left wing tradition has always been strong, and when the civil war broke out in 1936 Barcelona was hosting an alternative Olympics to the one being held in Hitler's Germany, promoting peace and anti-fascism. I remember only too well the fantastic demonstration in Barcelona on February 15th 2003 when hundreds of thousands marched against war in Iraq.
It was good to see so many on the streets last night, but they face formidable enemies. However, they draw on a tremendous tradition which goes far beyond nationalism. We should all show them solidarity in their fight for the right to choose how they want to be governed and to lay the ghosts of Franco.
Coming up this week: Storming the heavens: The Russian Revolution 100 years on. Speakers include Daniele Obono, Judy Cox, Stathis Kouvelakis, Ona Curto Graupera, John Rees, Vladimir Unkovski-Korica and Alan Gibbons
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
- China: Britain's gunboat diplomacy is not a force for peace
- Tories 3-0 down in the culture wars – weekly briefing
- Better safe than sorry you believed Boris – weekly briefing
- ‘Blame the Muslims’ is the new cry from Labour – weekly briefing
- What a HanCock up! – weekly briefing
- Tories fail, Starmer flails - weekly briefing
- The Ratline and The Good Germans - book review