Lindsey German on the Tory implosion and the mainstreaming of identity politics
Boris Johnson’s immediate legacy is to ensure a Tory party leadership contest which surpasses all previous ones in both its brutality and venality. A bewilderingly large number of deeply unpleasant people are vying to succeed this discredited prime minister and there will be a range of backstabbing leaks and dirty tricks from all sides until one comes out on top. In the process we will witness a bidding war to see who can deliver the lowest tax cuts, who will be strongest in the war on ‘woke’, who will wave the flag with the greatest enthusiasm – all to appeal to an electorate of around 100,000 mainly white, middle- and upper-class, elderly men.
It’s a ghastly prospect but one that shouldn’t surprise us too much. All of these people, it should be remembered, were happy to serve in Boris Johnson’s government until Monday, when they were forced into action against him by the damning words of a former civil servant, who fired an Exocet through the lies about Chris Pincher. It was only then that Javid and Sunak moved to resign, followed by around 50 of their colleagues. Even then, some of the contestants, including Grant Shapps and Liz Truss, stayed with Johnson to the bitter end.
It is astonishing that he is now being allowed to stay on as caretaker prime minister, given the view of his own former ministers, most Tory MPs, civil servants and even the press, that he is a liar and cheat, corrupt and arrogant. This latter quality was well on display in his speech outside 10 Downing Street on Thursday, when he refused to apologise for anything, didn’t let the word ‘resign’ pass his lips, and talked repeatedly about his personal mandate. Johnson should not be allowed one more day in office. He will spend whatever time he has left doing whatever he wants, especially over Ukraine. One of his first acts after his speech was to make a highly publicised phone call to Zelensky. This utterly untrustworthy individual still has access to the nuclear codes. He will also do his utmost to influence who his successor is, and to protect – and no doubt give honours to – his trusted friends. Like Rasputin, Johnson may be fatally wounded but he staggers on.
There is a great deal of talk, not least from Johnson, about the ‘western democracies’ in opposition to autocracies (by which is normally meant Russia and China, not Saudi Arabia or Turkey). But the democratic credentials of Britain are wearing increasingly thin. This has been shown by Johnson’s desperate clinging on to office and initial determination to go ahead with a lavish wedding party at Chequers later this month, which has only been moved following the backlash. More widely, the whole system of patronage under the Tories is an ongoing scandal of corruption, with rewards of knighthoods and peerages. The supposedly impartial civil service is integrated into government at its highest levels and is prepared to go along with this state of affairs. The system is increasingly gerrymandered: the Tories have presided over a series of repressive laws which restrict protest and criminalise various groups; they plan to redraw parliamentary constituencies to disadvantage Labour; and for good measure they are demanding photo ID to vote – which will disadvantage the poor and ethnic minorities who traditionally tend to vote Labour.
Most of this passes with little dissent from politicians, the liberal media and commentators. They knew what Johnson was like in 2019 when they backed him against Jeremy Corbyn, whose fairly modest proposals for nationalisation and tackling inequality were anathema to the British ruling class. The Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley describes Corbyn as ‘unelectable’ in 2019, but in 2017 he almost won. He was then pilloried for two years over the issues of antisemitism and a second EU referendum. Labour’s commitment to that ensured that he could not win against Johnson in 2019.
Corbyn’s defeat gave a green light to Johnson to pursue his agenda with a large parliamentary majority. It also led to a Thermidorean reaction in Labour as Keir Starmer reneged on all his leadership election promises, waged war on Corbyn and the left, and determined to lead a ‘responsible’ opposition which meant not opposing very much at all. Labour’s ratings have risen in recent months reflecting growing discontent with Johnson, but the same isn’t true for Starmer. He will face further difficulties because he has placed so much emphasis on being not Johnson. It will not be so easy with another Tory leader.
There is however one demand which is conspicuous by its absence but surely should come from the left – that there has to be a general election now. The Tories are deeply unpopular, their latest prime minister has been thrown out by his own peers, and they want to elect another to carry on as usual. We should not allow that to happen. The outcome of any election now would probably be a hung parliament – that reflects the deep crisis in society – but whether that is true or not it would at least allow the electorate, not the Tory party, to decide. And a defeat for the Tories, however poor the alternative is, would be a blow to their whole agenda.
The Tory crisis is part of a much wider social crisis which exists internationally. We have been sold neoliberalism for 40 years as the solution to capitalist crisis. It has failed in its own terms and has left the vast majority of workers much worse off while a minority gets ever richer. This minority consistently rejects solutions which could redress this in favour of those which allow it to hang on to its wealth and power. The working class is faced with major challenges, most obviously the cost-of-living crisis which is set to get even worse and drive millions into acute misery. Already the events in Sri Lanka and Libya demonstrate the effect of energy and food price increases on the global south, but these protests are coming to Britain too.
We are already seeing prospects of a big strike wave across the summer and autumn. There are fuel protests because people can’t afford to drive to work. There will be much more unrest as fuel prices get even higher from 1 October including possibly riots as people can’t afford to either heat or eat. The People’s Assembly is organising protests at the Tory party conference and a national demo on 5 November. We need to build organisation across the unions, campaigns and movements. The Tories cannot deal with working-class organisation. Starmer will continue to disappoint. Big strikes and protests are much more decisive and important than elections – and success in these will begin to redress the balance of class forces in our favour.
It's very likely that whoever becomes the next Tory leader is from an ethnic minority. That means the Tories – the traditionally most conservative and racist of the main parties – will have had the first woman leader and the first non-white leader. At least some of these candidates, Suella Braverman and Kemi Badenoch in particular, have already launched attacks on the so called ‘woke agenda’, as part of a Trump style culture war debate about race and sexual politics. It seems to me very important that the left does not fall into the trap of echoing the mainstream neoliberal agenda in its opposition to these politics but instead asserts its politics of class and the liberatory aspects of socialist ideas.
There should be no surprise at one level about people like Sunak, Javid and Zahawi vying for top place in the Tory party. The neoliberal ruling class is multicultural and is quite happy with this state of affairs as long as it does not mean that the racial hierarchy of capitalism overall is disturbed. It’s a remarkable fact that despite decades now of ethnic minority, female and LGBT people populating boardrooms and television studios, parliament and university senior management teams, so little has changed for most oppressed people. It could be argued, especially for women and black and Asian people, that the situation has gone backwards in many respects. Take sexual harassment at work, or the level of domestic responsibilities for working women. Take the very high levels of police harassment of blacks, and the regular statistical findings that certain ethnic groups are disadvantaged in all sorts of ways.
The explanation for this is that the prevalence of identity politics within industry, the academy, public institutions is designed precisely to ensure that much wider upheaval on these questions does not take place. The great liberatory movements of the 60s and 70s are hidden behind talk of identity, inclusion and diversity. The terms oppression, liberation and class – which became so central in these movements – are no longer mentioned. Questions of oppression are therefore relegated to questions of individual choice, not to systematic racism or sexism. These latter are however two of the main bedrocks of capitalist exploitation and oppression, seeking to create divisions within the working class in order to weaken it. This class exploitation must be at the centre of any response to culture wars, because only by understanding this can we understand the limitations of privilege theory and identity politics. The oppressed have to fight for their own liberation but they will only be successful as part of a wider fight against the system which perpetuates their oppression.
This week: I will be watching to see the results today of Aslef train drivers’ ballots for strike action which could presage a big wave of coordinated strikes with other unions on the railways – and maybe postal workers. This Tuesday, I will be going to the launch meeting of the new Stop the War briefing on Nato. And I will be catching up on Benjamin Zephaniah’s bicentenary programme about the poet Shelley, on BBC Sounds. If you want to find out more about the revolutionary writer no better place to start than here.
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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’.
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