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Editorial: Tory anxiety on universal credit points to Britain's ongoing political instability

GROWING anxiety among Conservative MPs over plans to end the £20 uplift to universal credit indicates a political fragility that belies the government’s 80-seat majority.

Wycombe’s Steve Baker has sounded the alarm over “intolerable” levels of hunger and poverty in his Buckinghamshire constituency.

Baker’s warning is an indication that some Tories are alert to the politically destabilising impact of extreme inequality.

Campaigns like the People’s Assembly are right to point to Tory hypocrisy, given that the party is behind the decade of austerity that has seen the social security system transformed into a punitive obstacle course and the explosion of a “gig economy” dominated by insecure work.

But the fact that the Conservatives have done more than any other political party to provoke the crisis does not mean that they are ignorant of it.

Quite the reverse. The Tory Party has proved more consistently able to exploit anxieties rooted in economic dislocation than Labour has, at least since the Brexit referendum.

The Tories, as well as Labour, the Lib Dems, the Scottish National Party and every sizeable group at Westminster, backed Remain.

But since then, and especially since 2017, when the Labour right began to build its political strategy around using the second referendum campaign to drive a wedge between Jeremy Corbyn and Labour members and affiliated unions, the Conservatives were the ones to pose as radicals ready to shake up the existing order — by “getting Brexit done” in accordance with the popular mandate.

The strategy was a stunning success. It ran rings round a Labour leadership whose constant struggle with a treacherous parliamentary party and politically naive mass membership left it barely any room for manoeuvre.

In 2019 it broke the first significant socialist challenge to the status quo in Britain for at least four decades, one that had been formidable enough to advance in the face of wall-to-wall Establishment hostility just two years earlier. And in sacking Labour stronghold after Labour stronghold in the “red wall,” it appeared to be redrawing the political map.

At the same time, shrewder Tories are aware that their 2019 landslide was the gift of a politically volatile public prone to revolt — against a smug Westminster Establishment recommending Remain in 2016, through a huge swing to Labour against the warnings of the same Establishment and almost the whole print and broadcast media in 2017, against Westminster manoeuvres aimed at negating the 2016 vote in 2019.

Baker is a home counties MP from true-blue Tory country. But Labour’s 2017 surge toppled some such MPs (as in Canterbury) and threatened others, including him — Labour’s Wycombe vote rose by 15.2 percentage points in the 2017 election. 

In 2019 the pendulum swung the other way, and it was the red wall that fell. But the crisis of legitimacy engulfing the British political system has not been resolved.

The rift over universal credit must be seized on. This is for the immediate purpose of bringing every Tory MP possible on board to stop the Chancellor removing the £20 uplift — a move that will hurt millions.

And it puts front and centre the economic demands that highlight the structural injustice of the system. 

Liberals have explained the Brexit vote as an example of Tory culture wars — convincing the electorate to vote for something that will make them poorer on grounds of identity.

The argument ignores the lack of opportunity that blighted huge parts of Britain before the vote, and the reasonable assumption of millions that there was no prospect of improvement without a vote for change.

The Tories’ weakness is that despite exploiting that sentiment, they are the party of the ruling class, of the tiny minority who profit from the immiseration of the rest.

Building a class-conscious movement that locks horns with our rulers on the core questions of pay, ownership and economic control is the way to expose that reality.

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