“If the Conservative party can hang onto office, then – unless they are forced back through relentless opposition – things are going to get very nasty for very many people. Even more than we have already seen.”
By Simon Fletcher
Tory conference is over and Truss has delivered her first speech as leader. As the Mirror’s Kevin Maguire suggests, with huge Labour leads in the polls, perhaps it was her last.
What was clear is that latest iteration of the long Tory government is behaving like an uncompromising sect. Extreme right wing ideological self-confidence oozes from the Truss crew. Having exhausted each successive previous permutation of its ideology the government is trying to ram through hard-line austerity and a huge hand-out for the richest.
All of that was on display this week. ‘Militant unions’ and the ‘hard left’ were in the Prime Minister’s sights. Tory members came to worship the god of trickle down and to ‘harness the power of free enterprise.’
The government is not afraid to show its confrontational edge. “The current system would rather our young people get a degree in Harry Potter studies, than in construction,” said Higher Education Minister Andrea Jenkyns, who also claimed that universities are feeding students “a diet of critical race theory, anti British history and Social Marxism.”
Falsehood was causally presented as truth. Britain is twelve years into a Tory government, yet in her speech Truss presented her party as the challengers to the status quo. She and her Chancellor denounced low growth as if they have not been Conservative MPs with a Conservative government since 2010. At one point in her short speech, Truss referred to her upbringing in 1980s and 1990. “I have seen the boarded-up shops. I have seen people left with no hope turning to drugs. I have seen families struggling to put food on the table.” She did not remind us that her party was the government for all but three years of the 1980s and 1990s.
The problem is not at all that the government has an ideology – but that it is pursuing with relentless fervour the wrong ideology. George Dibb of the IPPR has pointed out the error of believing that having the lowest corporation tax in the G20 assists the UK achieve growth and investment: “Of G20 countries (in the OECD investment dataset) the UK also has the lowest private sector investment too”.
Fundamentally, past the rhetoric, this is a government opening up a full-on confrontation with wide layers of British society.
So low is the standing of the Tory Party and Truss herself that the view is hardening that the Tories’ days in government are coming to an end – though this risks complacency.
That the Tories may be doomed can both weaken them as a government but also fuel their instinct to sit tight and delay a general election for as long as they can. Their hope will be to kick the election into the long grass and wait to see if any form of growth appears. It is an extremely dangerous scenario for millions in Britain.
If the Conservative party can hang onto office, then – unless they are forced back through relentless opposition – things are going to get very nasty for very many people. Even more than we have already seen.
For some time now the trajectory of politics in Britain has been an escalating conflict over living standards. The cost of living crisis is worsening a wages squeeze that has been underway for years. Truss and Kwarteng are pursuing policies designed to transfer the cost of the wages and inflation crises, and the fall-out from Covid, onto the majority of lower and middle income people. To make that possible they want to tear up the rights of those who might oppose them. So millions of workers are being made to pay by being forced to accept worsened pay levels, alongside attempts to change their working conditions or cut their jobs altogether. That is: extracting more out of working class people for less.
As the conference showed, if the Tories are able to stay put in Downing Street, the extent of conflict over their programme will be enormous. Going into the Tory conference Simon Clarke, the levelling-up secretary and ally of Liz Truss, told The Times that Britain has lived in a “fool’s paradise” for too long and must reduce public spending to help to fund the government’s tax cuts. He criticised the “very large welfare state” and said Whitehall departments would have to “trim the fat.” However, resources are to be found to raise defence spending from two per cent to three per cent of GDP.
Although Kwasi Kwarteng was forced to abandon his top rate tax cut, the rest of his package is intact. Indeed, speaking just after he u-turned on the top rate, Kwarteng confirmed public spending limits that mean public services would need to find further real-terms cuts of up to £18bn a year.
As the former Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell tweeted, “Dumping [the] top tax cut will not prevent the next round of austerity being planned by Tories to pay for the cuts in corporation tax, reversal of NI increase & cut in basic rate. Having destabilised pensions & mortgages the next Tory round of austerity will cause immense hardship.”
This programme of immense hardship involves cuts to public services, a major clash over the levels of social security payments, and handouts to the rich. It will inevitably dovetail with the highest level of industrial action in decades, driven to a large degree by the wages crisis. Ripping up commitments over fracking has opened up battle-lines in the communities affected but also signalled a new phase of conflict with the environmental movement.
We may well be in the late days of the Tories, although it would be an error to treat that as a foregone conclusion. But while they are there, very sharp and intense conflict with the Conservatives is now locked-in.
Over the summer, Labour became embroiled in a self-inflicted argument about its attitude to strikes. But the question of how the official opposition in Parliament relates to the wider opposition is not going away because of the scale and severity of what the government is opening up. The trade unions’ defence of the living standards of their members has taken on central importance for the prospects of stopping Truss achieving her objectives. Success for the unions would be a major obstacle to driving down living standards.
Defeat of the Conservatives’ programme requires alliances amongst those now on the sharp end, and support for each other.
- This article was originally published by Simon Fletcher’s Modern Left on the 5th October, 2022.
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