Organise to get them all out
All strike together for a pay rise
Build a new mass workers’ party
Join the socialists
Editorial of the Socialist issue 1188
On the morning of Friday 13 December 2019, as the country awoke to find Boris Johnson had been elected Tory prime minister with a landslide majority, the Socialist Party argued that, “the seeming strength of Johnson’s government will be shattered by coming events. In 1987 Margaret Thatcher had a majority of 102. Within twelve months the campaign of mass non-payment against the poll tax, led by Militant, now the Socialist Party, had begun. It turned the Iron Lady into Iron filings, forcing her resignation in 1990. Today the Tory party is far weaker than it was then. It is bitterly divided, and Johnson has only been able to win by distancing himself from his own party, using populist rhetoric to falsely claim he is standing up for ‘the people’.”
Now, just 31 months later, Johnson has been forced out. His departure is against the background of the first national rail strike by the transport workers’ union, the RMT, which has begun to demonstrate the power of the working class to fight back against the cost-of-living squeeze. That national strike joined a rising tide of determined local action, and more national strikes on pay are looming across different sectors, including telecoms, post, teachers and more.
Just two weeks ago Johnson declared that it was necessary to “stay the course” and face down the RMT, but instead he is leaving the scene, presiding in the meantime over a zombie government. For all those workers fighting for a pay rise, the government’s meltdown is a confidence boost that it can be defeated. Coordinated strike action could win inflation-proofed pay rises and force all of the Tories out of office.
In the 24 hours before he agreed to stand down, Johnson’s last line of defence was that his resignation would only lead to chaos in the Tory party, likely to be followed in short order by a general election and defeat for the Tories. For once he was telling the truth. The lying, corrupt character of Johnson and his government is not an aberration, but reflects the sickness of British capitalism and the long, slow inglorious decline of its main party: the Tories.
Of course, Britain’s capitalist elite has never been a homogenous bloc, and their differences – between industrial and financial bosses, for example – have long been reflected within the Tory party. However, historically the Tory party was generally extremely successful in mediating those interests, largely behind closed doors, away from the eyes of the working class.
Today they are openly at each other’s throats. Nadine Dorries MP, a Johnson loyalist, said of the leadership contest: “The hounds of hell have been unleashed. People will shred each other to pieces in the media. It is going to be a bloodbath”. As the Economist put it on 11 June: “A party that was ruthless, pragmatic and efficient is now cowardly, incoherent and inept.” This is not primarily as a result of the personalities of Tory politicians but because none of them have a way forward. The anger of the mass of working and middle-class people is surging as inflation soars, resulting in real wages plummeting in the year to April 2022 by 4.5% on average.
Corporate, government, and personal debts are at record highs. Investment levels are low. Exports have fallen. There is no capitalist policy that offers a road to healthy growth and increasing living standards. That is the root cause of the Tories’ disintegration.
For a very brief period, Johnson, as a result of a successful populist appeal in the 2019 general election, was able to paper over the fissures in the Tory party. As the electoral shine came off him, that period came to an end and civil war once again raged – finishing in an unprecedented 54 ministers resigning in the course of 24 hours as they tried to force Johnson out. Some, like the momentary education minister, Michelle Donelan, were in office less than two days before they resigned. She will still be paid £17,000 for her 35 hours of cabinet membership however!
Disunity over next leader
Now Johnson has been dragged out kicking and screaming, the capitalist class is desperate for the Tories to unite around a candidate who could be relied on to act in their interests, and could be put into place as quickly as possible. They know the chances of achieving that are very slim, however.
Unity around Johnson was only achieved because all sections of the capitalist class, and all wings of the Tory party, were desperate to prevent the then left leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, from winning a general election. Now that threat has gone, with Labour led by Starmer – a Blairite pro-capitalist politician, the Tories again resemble cats fighting in a sack. One anonymous senior ex-minister even admitted to the Observer that the Tories “will struggle to survive this” and that he thought “we will split”.
The Financial Times summed up the desperation of the capitalist class when it concluded that the way out of the chaos would be “scrapping the drawn-out process of tendering the vote to all party members” – in other words abolishing what Tory party democracy exists, and leaving the decision of who should lead them to Tory MPs. While it is certainly true that the Tory party’s membership – only around 120,000 compared to three million at its peak – could not be relied upon to elect a candidate that would act reliably for British capitalism, nor can its deeply divided parliamentary party be relied on for that. Ex-chancellor Sunak, married to a billionaire, is seen by the Financial Times and the Economist as a relatively safe pair of hands, but the populist wing of the parliamentary Tory party are frenzied in their hatred of him as a “high tax chancellor”.
During his time as prime minister, Johnson repeatedly acted as a ‘Poundland Trump’. He was prepared to seriously undermine the institutions of British capitalism, by proroguing parliament in 2019 for example, whilst falsely claiming to be acting for ‘the people’. In his final days in office he was also willing to dynamite the Tory party, by refusing to resign and trying to call a general election. In the end, the absence of support among MPs for this Trumpist strategy meant he had to abandon it.
The main reason that even the most right-populist wing of the Tory party did not want to go down that road was because Johnson the ‘populist’ (who was never actually popular – Theresa May’s initial personal poll ratings were higher than Johnson ever managed) is now no longer popular by any stretch of the most deluded imagination. On the contrary, recent parliamentary byelections show how widely hated he is. Before he finally resigned, a clear majority of Tory voters were calling for him to go.
However, Johnson’s resignation speech continued his populist approach, claiming the mandate of the 14 million who voted Tory in 2019, while berating the “eccentricity” of Tory MPs for ditching him. Nor will Johnson’s demise be an end to the Tory party version of Trumpism. The Tories are not divided into two – or even three or four – clear cut blocks, but are in the process of fragmenting in myriad ways. Nonetheless, the right-populist wing has grown in strength. It is possible that Johnson could be replaced with a candidate who plays to the Tory faithful with ‘Johnsonite’ policies. These could include cutting taxes, but also, against the background of growing economic crisis, further state intervention measures. Such “fiscal incontinence” as the Economist describes it, could easily lead to the financial markets attacking sterling and a worsening capitalist economic crisis.
In such circumstances, the remnants of the old-school so-called ‘one nation’ Tories might well decide to act in the interests of their class and give up on their party. In the midst of the Brexit crisis the likes of Michael Heseltine voted Liberal Democrat. That was when Corbyn led Labour. More recently, the rumours of a block of six Tory MPs switching to Labour have been widespread. Clearly that is not on the cards during a leadership contest, but depending on the result it could happen on an even bigger scale. Conversely, if a ‘one nation’ Tory was somehow to manage to win the Tory leadership, he or she would face open mutiny from the populists from day one.
Labour safe for capitalist interests
On one issue, however, the Tory party remains united. It defends the capitalist system and expects working class people to pay for its failings. What does it say about Starmer’s Labour that it can happily welcome the likes of Christian Wakeford MP, who joined Labour in April of this year straight from the Tory benches, while its previous left leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is unable to sit as a Labour MP? Unfortunately, the answer is simple. Starmer’s Labour also represents the interests of the capitalist elite, and not those of the working-class majority. As the Economist put it: “When Conservative MPs complain about the perils of Corbynism, Sir Keir Starmer can say he wholeheartedly agrees. He has purged the party of lefties, with the brutality that used to be associated with the Conservatives.”
The workers’ movement needs to draw the conclusions from this. Firstly, the necessity of building for coordinated strike action in both public and private sectors in order to win inflation-proof pay rises. The current government is weak and can be defeated. If it is forced out of office that would be a victory for the working class.
No quarter can be given though, to the pipe dream that waiting for a Labour government to act in workers’ interests is a solution. When the shadow foreign secretary refused to support a strike because Labour is “serious about the business of being in government”, he said everything about how Labour would act in government to defend capitalist interests. If the Tories melt down and Labour is thrust into power against the background of a growing strike wave, the working class would be in a strong position to fight to improve its living standards, but would still be facing a government that represents the interests of the capitalist elite.
This also poses the urgent need for the workers’ movement to start to build its own political party. We need MPs in the houses of Westminster who can give a voice to the growing industrial fightback. Rather than waiting for some future date to start to tackle this issue, the workers’ movement should take the first steps now, including preparing to stand candidates in the next general election.
Johnson’s prediction that the next government is likely to be a ‘coalition of chaos’ – such as Starmer leading a pro-capitalist minority government, against the background of economic crisis – is likely. Trade unions would have to organise to fight for workers’ interests against such a government. That task would be significantly strengthened if there was a block of MPs from a workers’ party – representing militant trade unionists. If such a party fought for socialist policies – starting with nationalisation, under democratic workers’ control, of energy, rail, mail and telecoms; mass council house building and a £15 an hour minimum wage – it could quickly gain mass support.
Photo at top: NSSN placards on a NSSN lobby of the TUC in September 2019, credit: Mary Finch
This article was updated on 11.7.22