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Can the rage at Boris Johnson be turned into a real left counterattack?

PUBLIC anger over the breathtaking hypocrisy exposed by Downing Street in the Christmas party scandal cannot be understated.

Boris Johnson’s stuttering performance at Prime Minister’s Questions, Health Secretary Sajid Javid being forced to deny that the government has lost credibility on Covid and polls showing Labour edging ahead of the Conservatives all show that the Tories are in trouble.

Some point out that, in the catalogue of the government’s crimes, holding an illicit Christmas party ranks pretty low. 

It does not compare to the Nationality and Borders Bill giving the Home Secretary the right to strip people of their citizenship without explanation and criminalising desperate refugees.

It is less problematic than the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill imposing sweeping restrictions on the right to protest and astonishing jail sentences — of up to a decade — on those who fall foul of them. 

On Covid alone, it is not the most offensive act of a government that has shamelessly exploited a national health emergency to enrich ministers’ friends while forcing down the pay of the public-sector workers on the front line — all while presiding over one of the highest per capita death tolls anywhere on Earth.

This is all true, but misses the point. The sense that ministers are “lying to us and laughing at us” provokes outrage because it comes in that context: of people who have sacrificed a great deal through this crisis to keep others safe, who have lost loved ones in circumstances where they were unable to say goodbye, seeing that the government was not even attempting to follow the rules it imposed on others and was treating these sacrifices with contempt.

That reinforces the sense of “us and them” — that ordinary people are the despised playthings of a footloose political and corporate elite — that has repeatedly shaken British politics over the past decade, finding voice at first on the streets through the Occupy movement, later at Westminster with the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and a mass-membership socialist-led Labour Party and then with the Brexit vote rejecting four decades of economic strategy by successive governments.

Much of our political elite like to think that this turbulent era is behind them. A decade of coalitions and minority governments was ended by Johnson’s emphatic win at the 2019 general election. Labour is “under new management” and has abandoned most of the socialist content of its 2017 and 2019 manifestoes. 

As it haemorrhages members and turns its back on unions, the rude irruption of ordinary people into the political system seems to be over: politics is back to a professionals’ game played in Parliament, and it seems unlikely that any government would risk chancing a referendum on anything important ever again.

That, at least, is the view taken in an article this week by Guardian associate editor Julian Coman, who correctly identifies “a kind of restoration politics” in both Labour and the Tories. 

For Labour, this means turning its back on insurgent politics, trumpeting its loyalty to Establishment institutions and US foreign policy and pitching itself as the more competent and less sleazy alternative to the Tories for managing British capitalism.

For the Tories, it is reflected in the growing resistance of the Treasury and backbenchers to the spending commitments implied in Johnson’s “levelling-up” pledges, resulting in the downgrading of infrastructure investments like high-speed rail for the north and threats to resume the “austerity” restrictions on spending that the party sought to distance itself from under both Theresa May and Johnson (in order to deflect the sharp, inequality-based critique of Corbyn’s Labour).

The trends Coman details are real, but they are only part of the story. The “restoration” is taking place at institutional level, as the ruling class strengthens its grip on Westminster politics.

The torrent of anger over the Downing Street Christmas party shows that public resentment of that ruling class is as potentially explosive as ever.

Indeed, narrowing the field of vision to the green benches is to miss trends that underline how badly our Establishment has been shaken by the events of recent years. 

The massive extension of police powers and rafts of legislation placing state agents above the law are the acts of a state that fears and distrusts the people. 

The same logic in microcosm explains the ongoing crackdown on Labour members, which is no less extraordinary just because the mainstream media don’t report on it: retroactive suspensions for having associated with organisations that have subsequently been banned, letters of investigation for having clicked “like” on Facebook posts years in the past. Labour HQ, like the British state, lives in fear of the people it supposedly represents.

All this makes it essential that the left approaches this crisis in the right way. A political resolution that sees Johnson sacrificed to make way for another Tory administration even less sympathetic to public investment and pay rises wouldn’t help working people. Nor would one which sees the police or courts further empowered over what we do in our homes.

That is absolutely not to counsel going easy on Johnson on the grounds that a Rishi Sunak premiership might be worse. Forcing the Prime Minister out no longer appears impossible, and it could mark a significant victory over the Conservatives.

Johnson’s public persona has been a powerful Tory weapon in an era of collapsing faith in institutions. Twice, against Ken Livingstone in London and against Corbyn nationwide, the Tories have turned to him to see off an unconventional threat and he has succeeded. 

In 2019, that victory depended above all on posing as the party of ordinary people — the champions of a Brexit vote Labour seemed determined to thwart and the party willing to listen to a north that Labour appeared to treat with contempt. 

The calculation by both many Tory MPs and the Labour leadership seems to be that now socialism has been put back in its box, we can return to the status quo ante.

The Tories do not need to honour the spending promises they made to northern England to woo it away from Labour; Keir Starmer does not need to honour the promises he made Labour members to succeed Corbyn. The threat has been dealt with and it’s back to business as usual. 

On the left, we need to prove them wrong.

Shattering Johnson’s jovial image — replacing it with a more accurate picture of the egotistical, chronically dishonest bully that he is — helps shatter the myths that won the Tories the 2019 election and reduce the chance that they work in the future.

But removing Johnson will only help if it is the result of popular pressure, from below. That may very well happen if scores of Tory MPs begin to worry that the PM is a liability who might cost them their seats. The outrage at government lies must be turned into real pressure on individual MPs.

That’s why the line trotted out by Labour loyalists at times like this — that we should refrain from criticism of the Labour leadership since it distracts from pressure on the Tories — is quite wrong. 

Starmer has seriously undermined Labour’s ability to put pressure on Tory MPs. By persecuting and disenfranchising the members, he has largely disarmed a mass movement that showed in 2017 it could deliver despite wall-to-wall media hostility and misrepresentation.

He has demoralised and disorientated an organisation hundreds of thousands strong which retained significant numbers in many seats Labour lost in 2019, and could have made its presence felt. Fighting back against the Labour purges strengthens the left.

Secondly, we need to pose an independent socialist challenge to the Tories based on this crisis. Labour’s referral of the Christmas party to the police is the worst possible approach. 

Whoever the target, we cannot lose sight of the increasingly authoritarian nature of the British state and the growing power of the police over our lives. It is not for the police to oust the prime minister but for the people to do so.

If the left — in and out of Labour, through the unions and campaign groups — raises the pressure in the right way, the results could be significant. 

If Tory MPs fearful of their seats turning on Johnson are also under pressure over the broken “levelling-up” promises, it weakens the hand of Sunak and those who want to force another round of austerity. 

If they are also feeling the fury of workers over pay and rising living costs, it adds to pressure for real pay rises and for state action to control energy prices, making the space for us to put nationalisation back on the table as a realistic demand.

And if the Christmas bash is tied to the catastrophic handling of the entire pandemic — as the TUC, Bereaved Families for Justice, Independent Sage and others are now demanding via their calls for a proper timetable for the Covid public inquiry — we can expose the roles privatisation, outsourcing, poverty pay and a hollowed-out social security system have played in unleashing this disaster on our country.

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