Thursday, 23 December 2021

Liz Truss: An Anti-Profile

The Conservative Party is the sworn opponent of the labour movement, but this doesn't mean the qualities of leading Tories can't be appreciated from a distance. Margaret Thatcher, for instance, was able to consolidate a dominant bloc of interests and hold it together while smashing the trade unions and pushing through privatisations and marketisation not supported by the public. A ruinous and sectional programme in the service of her class to be sure, but carried through with conviction and strategic nous - even if then, as now, the Tories played politics on easy mode. One can make similar observations about John Major without subsequently whitewashing and lauding him. When he came to office, the economy was in the toilet partly thanks to the former chancellor of the exchequer ... a certain John Major. The Tories were facing the Poll Tax rebellion that had already seen violent disorder on Britain's streets, the consequences of negative equity and record home repossessions, a simmering internal civil war over European matters, and a not terribly popular war in the Gulf to fight. Yet within 18 months these issues were diffused or put into abeyance and the Tories won their largest vote ever (remember, fact fans, it's the 1992 general election and not the 2016 Brexit referendum that is the biggest democratic exercise this country has seen). Major would not have accomplished this if he was bereft of political skills, nor how he bedded down Thatcher's counterrevolution in the public services even as his party fell apart.

Among the notables and prominents in the contemporary Conservative Party, one would be hard pressed to find politicians of a similar calibre. Boris Johnson's barrelling of Brexit through his party and the subsequent election wasn't an act of genius, more like a realisation there was only way the Tories could resolve Brexit on their terms. The adroit political handling of the coronavirus crisis, at least until recently, would not have been possible without a supine opposition and supportive media. But, politically speaking, Johnson's a galaxy brain in a firmament of pinheads and dim bulbs. Considering the times Dominic Raab, Jacob Rees-Mogg, and Priti Patel have been found out we're not talking about a cabinet bursting with talent. Then again, as long as a would-be leader gives the disappearing party membership the feels, do they need any more?

It's a situation tailor-made for the not overly blessed Liz Truss. The latest hagiography published by The Times was conceived to warm the cockles of Tory hearts, and cosy the paper up to the frontrunner in the race to succeed Johnson. Indeed, it reads like a checklist so those at home can tick off their priorities. Thatcher affectations? She's done them. Taken on the woke mob? If one believes Truss's "reframing" of her memories, she's been doing this since her school days. A desire to make her way in the world is code for more market fundamentalism. Prefers going with her gut instead of thinking about decisions? Sure, her first instincts are liable to be correct. And the old Thatcherites tunes are there: "freedom", "liberty", the tried and tested Tory doublethink for less freedom and tighter liberties. Just as well, we learn, she's a fan of 1980s karaoke.

On her background, which is from the comfortably off and vaguely left wing middle class, The Times spares no efforts describing how she broke with the politics she grew up with. Entering student politics as a Liberal Democrat, apparently what made her right wing was a dose of the hard stuff - economics. We're told she genuinely believes left wing people are brainwashed (which is fair enough, because there are plenty of (wrong) leftists who say the same about the right), but that she's simultaneously ideological and wears her ideas light. She reads a lot, apparently, the pseudo political-scientific guff beloved of the Washington Beltway. And, like her peers, the obligatory biographies. But she's also quite impulsive, has come to value her gut instinct, and apparently has a work ethic that inspires the best from among her subordinates. All good big C Conservative stuff. However, what she can't run away from is her remain positioning during the EU referendum - the sort of reality-based arguments Brexiteers at the time called project fear. True enough, but her personal ratings on Conservative Home have found these remarks already forgiven if not forgotten. As trade supremo, foreign secretary, and now chief negitator with the EU over Brexit matters she has not only presented herself as the face of every new and/or rolled over trade deal going, following the departure of David Frost she gets to capitalise on the dreary sabre rattling and grandstanding this useless government is happy to indulge to keep the base frothy.

But Truss is not an ice cold Labour-slaying machine. Her quirks and awkwardness are talked up as strengths. Her speeches might be stilted and far from florid, but this puts her close to where the Tories think their base are. Especially the red wallers, who she had made an effort with and who, in turn, have reciprocated. She's au fait with social media too, but befitting her unaffected naturalism it output comes without the polish Sunak has poured into his online efforts. The Times also notes there isn't any big money behind her directly, which might be a disadvantage in the short term versus money bags opponents but when the rest of her party is stuck in the mire of corruption, that will endear her further to a membership also exasperated by the money grubbing at the top of the party.

There are two things that interest us: what would her leadership mean for the Tories, and would Labour (presently constituted) be able to defeat her in an election. From the off, Truss is most likely to win a post-Johnson leadership contest - assuming the parliamentary party don't block her path to the final two - because she exemplifies their prejudices and relative estrangement from wider politics (i.e. the anti-woke stand against social liberalism), the refusal to countenance the realities of Britain's situation following Brexit, and the decrepitude of British capitalism - which Johnson's overhyped but underwhelming economic regeneration agenda at least tries to address. When a party disengages from social life, the remaining activists and representatives are bound to find voluntarism attractive - as any alumnus of small political groups would tell you. Truss's Thatcherite cosplay offers the promise of handbagging the world and making it conform to a reheated Thatcherism. Problem is, the economy needs this like a hole in the head. Cutting? There's nothing left to cut. Privatising? The big ticket items are long gone. Clamp down on workers' rights? Neoliberal governmentality can't deliver docile subjects indefinitely, because their system isn't delivering the goods. As soaring food bank use confirms. To escape the spiral whereby their name is mud among most people of working age, the Tories must seize Johnson's half-arsed modernisation agenda and go full throttle, while building more homes, not attacking social security any more, abandoning stupid and wasteful market experiments, adopting social liberalism and ditching the overt and dog whistle racism of anti-woke crusading. The chances of them doing this are next to nil because of the character of interests they articulate and organise, and the small matter of most Tory MPs being of the view that doubling down on Conservatism is the path to take. What a Liz Truss leadership says about the Tories is that they're exhausted, bereft of ideas, but would happily weaken the system they defend by re-cementing narrow commercial, finance, and property interests as the hegemonic bloc of interests within capital as a whole.

And Labour? If Truss tries to generalise her Thatcherism 2.0 pitch out from the membership to the wider electorate, she's likely to do so under the rubric of tackling the debts the Tories have unnecessarily wracked up during the pandemic. After all, it worked well enough for Dave and Osborne back in the day. The other string to her bow will be, sorry to say, yet more tiresome culture war posturing with trans women and "gender ideology" the scapegoats of their campaign. Assuming Johnson is gone by 2023/4, the only realistic short-term chance the Tories have is if they cobble together the 2017 and 2019 coalitions again (aided by their jerrymandering of constituencies) before victories on this basis become more difficult as the decade wears on. How might Labour respond to this? It's not about to contest the Tories on culture wars, Keir Starmer has been pretty clear on that. Given how the party has frequently pitched its critique of the government to the right, if past behaviour is any indicator its not likely to contest a Truss move onto the terrain of Covid debt but rather portray themselves as more responsible custodians of the public purse. A bidding war it can never win when the terms of debate are readily conceded to the enemy. Labour's hope lies in being able to mobilise the 2017 coalition with enough Tory voters coming its and the Liberal Democrats' way, a new alliance that is looking possible presently. But one cannot rely on anti-Toryism alone. This coalition must be cemented so it can weather the inevitable Tory and press attacks. Pitch it too far to the right then the provisional bloc leaks. Get it right and the Tories can be defeated.

All things considered, Liz Truss is the answer for a party that has run out of answers. She would make Tory members and supporters feel good about themselves, and she would firm up their core vote. But beyond that, it's difficult to see how her reinvention of the Tories - really a reiteration of years gone by - can build a coalition to get her party over the finish line first. Which means the political initiative passes to Labour, should this scenario come to pass.

4 comments:

Unknown said...

Second Paragraph from the end and Phil says :
" Labour's hope lies in being able to mobilise the 2017 coalition with enough Tory voters coming its and the Liberal Democrats' way, a new alliance that is looking possible presently. But one cannot rely on anti-Toryism alone. This coalition must be cemented so it can weather the inevitable Tory and press attacks. Pitch it too far to the right then the provisional bloc leaks. Get it right and the Tories can be defeated."

Pure fantasy, Phil. The "2017 Coalition " can only refer to the huge vote increase Labour under Corbyn secured in 2017 - on a moderately Leftish Manifesto and with Corbyn as Leader. All the key promises of that Manifesto, and the 2019 one too, particularly the re-nationalisation ones, but in essence all the stuff Starmer cynically solemnly promised to continue with in his Leadership "10 Pledges" are totally gone - replaced by warmed over Tory-lite Blairism. And even in 2017, Labour , even under a moderately Leftish Leader, had still permanently lost the 50 + Scottish seats Labour had lost though decades of Scottisns Labour's endemic corruption, cronyism and Tory-like policies and politics. Under the privatisation and austerity approving Labour Right (under any other similar Leader to Starmer, Cooper et al, too) the old 'Red Wall seats, and Scotland, will never be won back .

So the Starmer/Mandelson strategy is a completely impossible one to achieve , of winning huge numbers of current Tory voters to Labour, and avoiding these disillusioned Tory voters 'dingo a North Shropshire ' and voting Lib Dem, and win back a major number of Scottish and Red Wall seats. Quite impossible with the warmed over neo Blairism on offer from the Nulabour2 Party.

The UK now has three major, essentially policy identical Tory Parties on offer to the electorate. The response , as in North Shropshire, will be mass abstention by the electorate, and the sizeable bleeding away of voters from the three stooge major parties towards lots of 'protest vote' parties, like the Greens (also, in reality, as the current opportunistic German Green rightward shift demonstrates yet again, a bunch of 'neoliberals on bicycles' when electoral opportunism conflicts with claimed basic principles !), and of course the mish mash of radical populist proto parties of the Right.
Tragically the lack of a radical left Party of any credibility to provide a home for the Lefties (mostly just radical Left Liberals rather than socialists it has to be said) streaming out of Labour , means that it is very likely that eventually the inchoate jumble of current Far Right populist often quasi fascist grouplets will coalesce into a new , significant, BNP type 'respectable', extreme Right (they leave their uniforms at home), that will give us all a real problem - as has already happened , spasmodically, with lots of electoral ups and downs, but nevertheless on a mass scale, in most European nations .

Phil's substance-less assumption that the Labour Party political zombie corpse has any real social democratic, or even Tory-Lite major scale (ie potential to form a GOVERNMENT) electoral life potential in it is simply self delusion, from someone, like the Socialist Campaign Group , forever lost in the swamp of Labourism .

Anonymous said...

What "unknown" said. Absolutely. Including the inevitability of the far right mobilising the dispossessed and disaffected, if there is no left wing alternative.

Blissex said...

«So the Starmer/Mandelson strategy is a completely impossible one to achieve , of winning huge numbers of current Tory voters to Labour,»

It is not impossible, there are two versions of it, the claim ed one and the real one:

* The ostensible one: like in 1997, a posh lawyer as a leader, a programme cloned from the Conservatives of authoritarianism and squeeze on "scroungers"plus Conservative incompetence and corruption will motivate thatcherite voters to switch to New Labour, as they just vote for the party nearest to their menu of preferences.

* The real one: like in 1997, the Conservatives screw up badly on something that is a vote-moving issue for a large chunk of their coalition, like property, and enough of that chunk switches to New Labour to get it a seat majority by default, and provide continuity to thatcherism.

«and avoiding these disillusioned Tory voters 'dingo a North Shropshire ' and voting Lib Dem, and win back a major number of Scottish and Red Wall seats.»

In 1997 the Conservatives lost 4.5m votes, but only 2m went to New Labour; the rest went into abstention and for the LibDems. My impression is that "the establishment" would be very happy with a larger chunk of angry ex-Conservative voters going to the LibDems than New Labour this time, because it would be an extra reassurance that the governing programme would be and stay thatcherite.

«The UK now has three major, essentially policy identical Tory Parties on offer to the electorate.»

Just like in 1994-2010. But "Tory" is not quite the right word, I would say "thatcherite", or "pro-incumbent", because there are differences: the Conservatives are mostly tory, the LibDems are mostly whig, and New Labour is mostly whig with tory characteristics (brexitism, authoritarianism).

«The response , as in North Shropshire, will be mass abstention by the electorate, and the sizeable bleeding away of voters from the three stooge major parties towards lots of 'protest vote' parties»

That would be regarded by "the establishment" as a big success, lots of "trots" giving up the franchise, just like many "trots" are currently auto-expelling themselves from New Labour by not renewing their membership.

«the lack of a radical left Party of any credibility to provide a home for the Lefties (mostly just radical Left Liberals rather than socialists it has to be said) streaming out of Labour»

Not even "radical left", it would be enough to have a social-democratic party in the style of Hattersley and Corbyn.

«means that it is very likely that eventually the inchoate jumble of current Far Right populist often quasi fascist grouplets will coalesce into a new , significant, BNP type 'respectable', extreme Right (they leave their uniforms at home)»

That is pretty much the description of a large chunk of the current Conservatives, the "England prevails!" wing. :-)

«that will give us all a real problem - as has already happened , spasmodically, with lots of electoral ups and downs, but nevertheless on a mass scale»

I think that there will be riots, and the governments of the past several years have been tightening the legal instruments to deal with them. They will be considered just a cost of doing business by "the establishment". After all their "ancient regime" predecessors have been in solid control for 800 years despite the occasional peasant rebellions or pauper riots.

Unknown said...

Yes , I think there will be sporadic, intense, riots , all over England at least, too, Blissex : disorganised, nihilistic rioting, such as we saw in Liverpool and elsewhere in the 1980's onwards, and have seen in places like Manchester too only a decade ago. These will be provoked by a whole range of ad hoc incendiary issues, as the Poll Tax riots were under Thatcher . We have seen this pretty unfocussed 'mass rage' exhibited in Macron's France so recently, with the inchoate 'Yellow Vest' mass movement. A diverse 'movement of incoherent rage' that the Left totally failed to gain any connection with. Such incoherent mass , temporary, uprisings are so much easier for the opportunistic Far Right to attach to - as the total madness of the current anti Vaxx and Lockdown movements have illustrated so sharply.

Sporadic outbreaks of undirected mass rage rioting is the hallmark of a political system where masses of people, from the poorest, to the 'white van men' small entrepreneurs crushed by monopoly capitalism , have no conventional political party vehicle to fight their case in the institutions of bourgeois democracy. With NuLabour2 now firmly, and permanently back under the total control of the corrupt, careerist, pro status quo, Right Wing Blairites , there simply is no 'normal' bourgeois democratic route to positive change, or even vain hope for change, for the various cohorts of the oppressed . That in this article, Phil seriously thinks the important issue of the day is the fantastical one of whether Labour can recreate the 2017 electoral coalition once more , with the structures and policies of the Blair era, almost defies belief - but the wilful capacity for self delusion of the Labour Left has always been a wondrous thing to behold - throughout the Labour Party's dire history.

I totally disagree with your 'NuLabour 2 can still win by default, as the Tories implode, John Major era style" hypothesis, Blissex. Not possible , not with the now permanent loss of the 50+ Scottish seats, and the now permanent disaffection of so many old Red Wall seats. The 'Best' Nulabour's cynical ruling careerists can hope for is electoral deadlock in 2023/2024 and a German Christian Democrat/SPD type 'Grand Coalition' of the last ten years (now replaced by a SPD-led new Grand German coalition of centrist opportunists , including the totally opportunist German Greens - still totally committed to the status quo ! . But that sort of cynical lash-up would suit Starmer and his corrupt cronies down to the ground really.
Make no mistake, Far Right mass populism on a French or German, or Italian, waits in the wings in the UK, as it has manifested itself across Europe over the last fifteen years or so. The UK 'Left's' self absorption and crap left Liberal politics and enduring illusions in the potential of endless struggle to capture control of Labour by the Left - to promote a left programme, still dominates the 'Left's 'ideological mindscape' - as if the utter failure of that ancient Parliamentary Left project under the ever conciliatory and spineless Corbyn and co , 2015 to 2019, hasn't clearly demonstrated that to be a dead end - AGAIN !