Theresa May’s government is staggering from crisis to crisis, yet no likely replacement for May is apparent. Charlie Kimber assesses the political landscape as Corbyn’s Labour Party waits in the wings.
Theresa May keeps finding new ways to have a worse week than the one before. Don’t think this process will end in 2018. New lows will be reached, regarded as the bottom of the pit — and then even deeper depths discovered.
But it’s a great danger to think this means the inevitable demise of the May regime. No Tory wants to risk Jeremy Corbyn in Number 10 and the spectre of a Labour government promising change is what saves May. There is no unifying alternative to her for the Tories, and she acts as the useful scapegoat who could be replaced later on.
It’s an awkward fact that, unless the government collapses or is forced out, the next General Election is not due for 1,555 days from the beginning of February 2018. Imagine the damage done in that time, the lives shattered. So cataloguing May’s weakness is irrelevant unless there is a plan to strangle the Tories’ hold on office.
But at the same time that weakness is our opportunity. For a fleeting few days in December some told us that May had left the storm-tossed seas for a balmy shore. The first phase of the Brexit negotiations produced an outline agreement, temporarily stilling the tensions in the government. This was largely because May’s team had capitulated to European Union pressure on all the meaningful questions — most notably on tens of billions of pounds as a “divorce payment”.
But at least there was progress. Former Tory leader William Hague said the government was now on a “surer footing”. Then it all went wrong again. A few days before Christmas, May had to sack her close friend and deputy prime minister Damian Green for lying about pornography on his work computer. Coming after the loss of cabinet colleagues Michael Fallon and Priti Patel, it meant another crisis. Even the news of a new all-blue British passport couldn’t reverse the slump.
May then hoped that a reshuffle would turn the tide. It was not to be. Some ministers refused to move and May gave in to them. Justine Greening left the cabinet rather than give up the education portfolio. As May flicked through her Financial Times she might have read that, “Reshuffles are rarely as exciting or wide-ranging as expected. But it is hard to think of a more shambolic rearrangement of a British cabinet in recent history than Theresa May’s effort.”
Veteran journalist Simon Heffer wrote that instead of a more capable party leadership team the Tories “got Brandon Lewis as chairman, whom a senior colleague described to me charitably as ‘a tosser’, a deputy chairman and 13 vice-chairmen”.
There are regular reports that the Conservatives are down to 70,000 members nationally.
It’s a long way from “strong and stable” at the start of the election campaign or “peak May” on 23 April last year when the Tories were polling 50 percent, Labour 25 percent and May was the most popular prime minister for 40 years. The loss of a parliamentary majority on 8 June left the Tories broken. But it’s not just May’s failings that are bringing them down. Across the world there’s a bitter anger about a decade of austerity, fierce inequality and an elite wholly out of touch.
It’s a society of Universal Credit, Carillion, an NHS crisis, and migrants abandoned in the snows of Calais. And Boris Johnson.
The anger is particularly strong among young people. A City fund manager told a newspaper recently, “Capitalism is not working for the under-40s, so they’re voting for socialism.” Actually it’s not working for the over-40s either.
The negotiations over Brexit, now very real and immediate, will deepen the Tory splits. Big business, a central plank of the Conservatives, wants a deal as close to what exists now as possible — or even better no Brexit at all. That means allowing free movement of labour for at least a period. Another section of the Tories is above all else obsessed with ending free movement and slashing migration.
These two incompatible visions will continue to haunt the government.
The left cannot abstain from the Brexit debate. Instead of seeking to reverse the verdict there has to be a fight for a workers’ Brexit, not a bosses’ and bankers’ Brexit. Because they enshrine the rules of neoliberalism, it’s right to oppose the single market and the customs union. And it’s crucial to be for the defence and extension of free movement, and for workers’ internationalism.
A second Brexit referendum would unleash a torrent of lies and a renewed barrage of bosses’ threats designed to reverse Brexit. So socialists should oppose it. The issue of the Irish border could be solved by a united Ireland — and the people of the whole of Ireland should have the democratic right to decide on this.
The paralysis of the Tories increases the expectation that Corbyn will win the next General Election. Labour’s renewed confidence and the successes of the left inside the party are hugely welcome. Corbyn’s rise has boosted the whole of the left. It has made it easier to talk about socialism, and given campaigners confidence.
Every socialist should want Corbyn as prime minister as soon as possible and be part of the movement to get him there. But the Labour right and the trade union leaders still hold important influence inside the party. Labour-supporting journalist Kevin Maguire wrote recently:
“Largely overlooked as three Momentum activists triumphantly took their seats on Labour’s governing National Executive Committee is the addition of a new face who represents the shape of battles ahead for control of the people’s party.
“[Retail union] Usdaw’s Joanne Cairns filling an extra place signals organised labour’s fierce determination to fight its corner. General secretaries I spoke to emphasised an unshakable resolve to retain the influence of their own and other unions. Those on the left fear Momentum may prove a flash in the pan or ultimately reckless while those to the right assert they [the unions] provide, as one leader put it, the ‘ballast to keep our party’s feet on the ground and the show on the road’.”
The union bureaucracy have frequently pushed back the left inside Labour. They destroyed left wing Labour leader George Lansbury in the 1930s. They were central to the right’s battle against Tony Benn in the 1980s. They shielded Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Their social role is to extract concessions within the system, not plan to overthrow it.
And at council level the right still are in charge nearly everywhere, implementing cuts and often attacking council workforces to meet the Tories’ demands. Birmingham Labour council tried last year to slash bin workers’ wages — although it was partially unsuccessful due to a strike. It has now attacked low-paid mainly women home care workers’ jobs and conditions — again leading to strikes.
In the forthcoming local elections across England most people will see the vote as a proxy vote between Corbyn and May. But Labour councils implementing cuts, social cleansing and attacks on unions will hardly inspire voters.
And there is also an important and growing contradiction. Corbyn’s success combined with the lack of major workplace struggle encourages the mood of “waiting for Jeremy”. Labour itself encourages this mood by shrinking from real struggle on the streets and the workplaces.
An example was Labour’s powerful party political broadcast about the NHS on 17 January. It tore into the Tories, but never mentioned the major demonstration for the NHS on 3 February. Had it done so, and backed it with a campaign, tens of thousands more would have marched. Instead it just called for a Labour vote and for people to join Labour.
Last June shadow chancellor John McDonnell spoke at a union conference and said, “We need people doing everything they can to ensure the election comes as early as possible. Just think if the TUC put out that call, that we want a million on the streets of London in two weeks’ time.”
But why didn’t Labour do that, with time to build it, a tour of universities by Corbyn, an appeal to every trade unionist and young person and campaigner to get on the streets? A million would certainly be possible. Instead it’s all largely about elections.
“Waiting for Jeremy” doesn’t affect everyone — there are important strikes such as the ones on the railways and the scheduled one by lecturers in the pre-1992 universities over pensions. The tendency to wait and hope is strongest among the trade union leaders, but it goes much wider into a broad range of campaigners and activists.
“Waiting for Jeremy” risks allowing the Tories to stagger on while implementing vicious austerity and racism. It directs attention towards Labour’s internal struggles rather than wider class battles.
It can also undermine the collective confidence which boosts a Corbyn vote.
Socialists therefore have to be the strongest voices for “Get the Tories out NOW”, “Fight NOW to save the NHS”, “Fight for migrant rights NOW”, “Stop sanctions and Universal Credit NOW” — and for agitating for the battles that can make this a reality.
There is a more fundamental question, which is being debated widely now — what would a Corbyn government be like? The bosses are certainly thinking about this. A report from wealth management firm Morgan Stanley released in November agonised about the effects for “companies in the utilities, postal, telecommunications, financial and defence sectors” if Corbyn wins.
The point was made even clearer by Graham Secker, an equity strategist at Morgan Stanley: “If I am a UK shares fund manager, I am more concerned about a potential change in the domestic political government than I am about Brexit,” Secker said. “You need to think about tax rates going up, about nationalisation, about an economic system which has favoured capital over labour for the last ten to 20 years shifting to favour labour over capital.”
Merryn Somerset Webb of MoneyWeek warns, “It is, I’m afraid, time to prepare your personal finances for a Corbyn government. The collapse of May’s well-meaning but inept government and replacement by a neo-socialist Labour government is now a high enough risk that not to prepare for it would be reckless. Say goodbye to gap years, cocktails in Dubrovnik and Christmas shopping in New York. It will be over.”
The bosses and bankers will use investment strikes, runs on the currency, attacks on bond rates and other methods to repulse any fundamental attacks on their wealth and privilege.
As Ralph Miliband (the Marxist father of Ed and David) wrote after the right wing coup in Chile in 1973, “To achieve office by electoral means involves moving into a house long occupied by people of very different dispositions — indeed it involves moving into a house many rooms of which continue to be occupied by such people…electoral victory only gives one the right to rule, not the power to rule.”
Faced with the hostility of bosses and much of the media, prime minister Corbyn will either compromise, or have to wage a counter-offensive. There will need to be a movement on the streets and in the workplaces which defends Corbyn against the right, and also pushes back against his hesitations, delays and retreats.
A left-led Labour government would face the same problems as Francois Hollande in France or Syriza in Greece. A return to 1980s-style “Old Labour” is not the solution we need. The weaknesses of reformism and the need for a revolutionary socialist party remain.
But this doesn’t mean we are just sitting on the sidelines and waiting for Corbyn to “sell out”. We are in the frontline of those who want to throw back the right’s assault and win change. Revolutionaries have to work alongside a wide layer of people made up of Labour members and Corbyn supporters. United work against racism, supporting strikes, defending the NHS, spreading the #MeToo movement and blocking fracking are crucial.
But there also has to be comradely discussion about the weaknesses of reformism.
Much of the left has simply collapsed into cheerleading Corbyn and given up on building independently from Labour. But the key battles are in the streets and the workplaces, not parliament. We need revolution, not working inside the system.
Charlie Kimber is the editor of Socialist Worker. This article is an updated version of his talk at SWP conference in January.