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Westminster politics is dire – so don’t lose sight of the bigger picture

Can unity of purpose and organisation bring about the fighting coalitions needed to beat the Tories? KEVIN OVENDEN believes so, but warns the left needs to be bold

IF POLITICS were deduction from party opinion polling then Britain as a whole is a grim and depressing place.

A year after the belated first lockdown and with nearly 150,000 needless deaths, the Tories are well ahead.

It cannot be written off as a “vaccine bounce.” Labour’s slide started before the vaccine rollout. Boris Johnson has widened his personal rating over Keir Starmer to 24 percentage points in a year.

A flighty commentariat has swung from predictions of Johnson’s imminent political demise to the opposite extreme of Tory ascendancy and untrammelled rule, possibly for the remainder of this decade.

The gilt is flaking from the Labour leader, chiselled off increasingly by some of his erstwhile supporters. 

Lord Mandelson demands a “policy review” to exorcise the ghost of the manifestos of 2017 and 2019. 

That the policies of 2017 chimed with mass opinion and arrested a 20-year decline in Labour support is not the point but it does reveal it.

What has to be expunged is exactly that surge and its reflection in the Labour Party as the coalition and Tory governments of the last decade generated not a new neoliberal consensus but, as in other major capitalist states, sharp polarisation.

It’s not centrally about policy, as when Neil Kinnock theatrically abandoned nuclear disarmament following the 1987 defeat. 

Labour has not had a unilateral disarmament position since. And its deputy leader has already repudiated the 2019 commitment to a 5 per cent pay increase for NHS staff, while obviously not endorsing the nurses’ higher pay claim even though it is popular — more so than her party.

This is not about popularity but direction. Hence Labour has selected just about the worst candidate in the worst possible way for the Hartlepool by-election.

Unfortunately, a bad result there will not strengthen the left’s case in Labour for a change of direction. 

Whether a narrow win or a crushing defeat, the official conclusion will be to go further down the same road. 

Unprecedentedly, the former leader of the party remains suspended from the parliamentary caucus.

How much farther can they go? Very much farther is the answer.

So at the level of Westminster politics things are dire. Those of us on the left should not imagine that it does not have an impact upon Labour-minded working people. 

Schadenfreude can feel exquisite. It will not halt a right-wing government hell-bent on holding on to power and lining its friends’ pockets.

But there is another side to this picture — a big one. It may not be expressed in crude party polling figures but it is in other ways. One of them is the behaviour of the government itself.

A leaked Cabinet Office memo last year warned of a possible “perfect storm” of coalescing crises for the government. It listed factors from civil unrest to widespread industrial action.

State-orchestrated ebullience at the vaccine rollout — trying to channel the genuine hope and relief of millions — is supposed to have dispelled such prospects.

But look at the ham-fisted attempt to rush through the authoritarian Police, Crime and Sentencing and Courts Bill.

The intention of a Home Secretary who could show Vlad the Impaler the way home is clear. 

Outlaw effective protest. Run a dangerous anti-left campaign to try to shore up the Tory voting base, but inviting forces further to its right. 

Bash Gypsies, Roma and Travellers while quietly upholding the control of the landowning gentry over vast tracts of the countryside.

As joint general secretary of the National Education Union Kevin Courtney points out, the target is not only the big noisy protests of radical movements. 

It is unions demonstrating and picketing. It is pensioners protesting at the loss of free bus travel. It is sincere lawyers trying to protect their clients from state over-reach.

Government sources say they were taken aback by the strength and breadth of opposition. 

The official opposition was also surprised and had to switch to actually opposing rather than abstaining. 

Neither had grasped how the outrageous police behaviour in south London at the vigil for Sarah Everard would provide a focus both for women’s anger at state failure on male violence and for opposition to this authoritarian legislation.

It has been delayed. The government faces a problem over when to bring it back. Why the rush in the first place?

It is reasonable to surmise that the government wanted these powers in short order in anticipation of a wave of protest and unrest of the kind the Cabinet Office warned about months ago.

A year of on-and-off lockdown plus the devastating impact on people’s lives and livelihoods has produced manifold grievances and discontent. It is not expressed in voter intention. Why should it be?

It is about the fundamentals of life that rarely get airtime and about which there is little by way of fundamental disagreement in official politics.

And the reality of life for the majority of people now is, simply, hard. You can go through the gradations of who has been hit hardest, ranging from the poor-law benefits system to the worker who still has their job but faces fire and rehire.

On top of that people have been told what they can do, threatened with fines if they don’t, and when they collectively follow the regulations for the general good see politicians and posh people breaking the rules all the time.

Instead of a gilded path for this government it faces a reckoning with this popular mood. Seemingly paradoxically, its own boosterism about ending lockdown next month invites popular protest.

Leave aside the rational health reasoning that the Tories so abandon. The more Johnson talks of a bright deliverance the more many will ask, where is it for us? 

The care worker who the Supreme Court now says should not be paid while being under the direction and control of her employers — the thieves of time in every part of the labour force.

A strong government spin led many to echo the claim that its economic policy has turned the page on the austerity of the Cameron years. 

The Institute for Fiscal Studies points out the small print of spending cuts across key parts of the public sector and what is left of local government provision.

That, not macroeconomic graphs, is what people feel and understand about austerity: their conditions of life. 

The IFS says the Tory plan will make “the first half of the 2020s feel a lot like the first half of the 2010s.” 

That’s after all the pain of the last 10 years and last 12 months especially.

Sure there may be infrastructure projects and big-spend, headline-seeking projects. For those who remember, that did not do French president Francois Mitterrand much good in the 1980s.

That decade in Britain springs to mind. In its latter half there was a triumphalist Tory government. 

A Labour Party careering rightwards and forever blaming the Bennite left at the beginning of the decade for all misfortunes.

But in circumstances far less straitened than now, all of it floated above a mass of working-class people who did not buy into an official politics that on many indicators they were alienated from.

This Tory government is turning to authoritarian legislation because it fears it does not have consent — not because most people are embracing authoritarian populism.

And that does pose a challenge for the socialist left. If you think you are the only one in opposition then ask your workmate or neighbour — not about how they voted or where they stand on the latest topic in the hourly news cycle: with Harry and Meghan or with the Queen?

Ask them about the problems of everyday life. There is a bigger left now than a decade ago. 

But so often so many words are expended in talking to so few people at just the time when so many people will give us a hearing.

Here, there is a vital role for the labour movement — notwithstanding the rightward-moving Labour Party leadership.

This government has U-turned almost fortnightly in the last 15 months. It can be forced to again on NHS pay and other issues. Its authoritarian Bill can be defeated or made a dead letter.

Can unity of purpose and organisation bring that about in the fighting coalitions needed to beat the Tories? 

A part of the answer is down to the forces of the left. A weight is lifting from society, for good or ill, a year into this pandemic. Will it find us stuck in silos and Zoom meetings? 

Or will we do what the left is for, and connect with millions? The People’s Assembly has called a national demonstration on June 26. 

It is a focus for this refusal of consent to be ruled in the same way.

As I write this piece, news comes that after 49 years the Shrewsbury building worker pickets have finally had their convictions quashed. 

They were hounded by a Tory government and employers using authoritarian measures to crush effective working-class organisation and strikes in 1972.

Of course it should never take so long to overturn such an outrageous injustice. 

But don’t lose sight of the big picture surrounding this outrage of the time. The working-class movement toppled that Tory government. 

It can break this one too. 

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