The Tories are deader now than they’ve ever been. But NATHAN AKEHURST says the left mustn’t expect swift results just yet
PARLIAMENT is currently wreathed in a web of scaffolding, money being pumped into its old joists and buttresses to prevent it from crumbling or burning. Its government occupants face the same fate—hurling buckets of cash into the breach to buy the temporary loyalty of Ulster mercenaries, shoring up their sandcastle administration.
Decay prowls. Everything crumbles in the end—says everyone from diehard Corbynites to Conservatives who were confident of a 100-seat majority at the beginning of the month.
The May administration is now up against an emboldened Labour Party surging in the polls. They have not been allowed a honeymoon. The DUP deal heightens the whiff of pork-barrel politics that already surrounded the administration.
It has been fined tens of thousands for election offences in the 2015 campaign, and there are now investigations into new allegations of illicit canvassing during the 2017 campaign. Over a third of the Sunday Times Rich List ploughed money into May’s campaign. The Conservatives out-bought and out-spent every other party and still failed to achieve a majority. They are in a deep crisis.
Things will get worse for them.
A party of metropolitan spivs throwing money at problems is far from the grand patriotic tradition the Conservatives claim to stand in. But it’s no surprise that chickens are coming home to roost.
They sit at the cigarette-end of neoliberalism, having run three empty campaigns on the trot based solely on smearing opponents and cheapening the substance of political discourse with nonsense.
They have run out of ideas, their compass swinging wildly between the Joseph Chamberlain obsession and blue-collar Toryism of Nick Timothy, the uneasy Brexit alliance of louche libertarians and old country patricians, and the kamikaze Macronism of George Osborne.
Beneath all that there is an intellectual deadening. The Centre for Policy Studies—a finishing school for hardline Thatcherites—has no solutions to answering the Corbyn youth surge beyond a new quango and tinkering with national insurance contribution relief.
This lack of project explains in part the May campaign’s empty bluster, and explains also why they do not understand the threat posed to them by the DUP.
Arlene Foster’s party has not really “modernised” at all since the Battle of the Boyne; it is a fierce, unbroken tradition that has weathered more than May’s new team (most of her senior press and policy advisers have fled) could imagine.
What her team probably imagined were a gang of peasant farmers, who would be in awe of the shiny decor of Number 10, have already extracted over a billion pounds from her and will be back for more.
This time the price was, ironically, the deployment of Labour’s manifesto in Northern Ireland. Next time it will be something else. Shortly before the first world war, the prime minister-to-be Bonar Law inspected the Ulster Volunteers in Belfast.
Today it’s the other way round—the ranks of the Conservative Party bowing to a dismissive Foster, whose sources complain that May’s aides “couldn’t find Northern Ireland on a map.”
Nor do the DUP care much for the niceties of political discipline. Heavyweight Emma Pengelly is busy defending the right to fly paramilitary flags.
While rightly drawing attention to their homophobia, racism and sexism, the English left has drawn too little attention to the sectarian agenda that powers much of the DUP’s base—a sectarianism that Number 10 is now in the position of being politically dependent on, in conflict with its agreed role as a supposed neutral arbiter between parties at Stormont.
Grenfell and the community around it smoulders. The fire illuminates a long record of dismal failure—boasting about cutting safety regulations, sitting on safety reviews, killing demands for sprinklers, selling off fire stations for luxury flats. Public discontent on this scale is not easily contained.
Meanwhile, support for ongoing austerity continues to dip, and both liberal and hardline Tories dig trenches for May to fall into should she call Brexit wrong. There are striking echoes of the Labour coup this time last year in May’s predicament; she may yet cling on because the parliamentarians who can’t stand her can’t find a serious alternative.
The zombie government shambles on — though even the zombie moniker is wrong; British Conservatism has never truly been alive. Only at rare points has it thought and felt or done more than simply act as a carrier for instincts of reaction; instinctively repelled by change, instinctively obeisant to a persistent class system that still, centuries on, defines who runs Britain.
It is perhaps deader now than usual, with fewer than ever organisers and an activist base that has dwindled to almost nothing. But the instinct lives on.
Many hope for a shortcut. There are those constantly asking what formal schema may bring down the government. A vote on the Queen’s Speech? A vote of no confidence? It remains, of course, entirely possible that such a thing could happen.
The DUP may go into open revolt. A deepening of the election offences scandal, or some hitherto unseen mayhem, might cause enough by-elections to further sap the majority. There are scenarios and there are scenarios.
That deft seeking of opportunity is no bad thing — without it, the Corbyn project would not have spotted the opportunity presented by the Collins reforms, which were supposed to be stacked against the left, and would not have put a candidate on the 2015 leadership ballot that went on to change everything.
There is nothing wrong with vigilance and a healthy dash of opportunism but those expecting swift results may need to steel themselves and think in the long term.
Conservatives make decent survivors. They are deferential, disciplined and sometimes even adaptable. They will be looking to new routes to attack, new ways to mobilise reaction, and new ways to do what they do best — cling to power for as long as possible. We need to grapple with the likelihood that this will be longer than October.
It will take the movement to win. It was movement politics that put Corbyn in the leadership twice.
It was movement politics that propels him now—the crowds from Glastonbury to the Durham Miners’ Gala that have a sense of common purpose, a sense of vision provided by a manifesto which began to paint a portrait of what a reformed Britain might look like.
The crowd is dismissed as a pliant, capricious mob time and again as it has been since “democracy” was a pejorative term seen as identical to mob rule in ancient Greece.
Yet throughout the general election campaign, the crowd proved what they could do.
A million doors knocked on in a day, and the conversations on those doors moving away from mechanistic boxticking and towards genuine engagement with people. There were entire streets in thought-to-be Conservative areas bedecked with red balloons and banners. The manifesto becoming a document read and engaged with by tens of thousands on its launch day—in an era where the political pamphlet as form has been consigned to history.
It is the conditions that can be created by organised crowds which are more likely than any parliamentary firestorm to knock down May’s sandcastle.
An example: the National Union of Teachers, which has recently invested in over a dozen new organisers, brought together teachers and parents around a school cuts campaign which helped catapult the issue to, in one poll, one of the top three concerns among the electorate.
There are plenty more groups and causes which together could create enough ruptures at the top for May’s position to become more untenable, just as a revolt against the Poll Tax finally saw off Thatcher.
For a long time, there has been anger about everything the left highlights—falling wages, falling living standards, shredded public services, widening inequality, deepening isolation and neglect—but that anger has lacked organs.
It has lacked organisations that are part of social and civic life, that can create a durable base against the forces of reaction, and that can raise the conditions, the aspirations and the demands of those around them.
Finally, Labour and the milieu of groupings around it has the project, the people and the potential funding to develop such organisation on a grand scale. Labour’s activists and elected representatives should, and now can, be out reaching as many people as they were during the election.
Labour’s manifesto and the costings and alternative forms of ownership document that accompanied it are strong and serious works of left-wing thought. They can be built on further, discussed more, and strengthened further for next time around.
As John McDonnell wrote this week, we have changed what it is acceptable to think. In a frantic snap election over 40 days, Labour got more people thinking, and doing, than was believed possible.
With the same iron focus, there are few limits to what more can be done, when politics is not just left to the “professionals.”
Anything we can do to hasten the arrival of another election is helpful. But more than anything, the task now is to preserve the energy, enthusiasm and hope of this election and use it as a sustainable springboard that can launch us into the next election whether that is in five years or tomorrow. We got this result.