Sunday 31 July 2022

The Tory Attack on the Right to Strike

One thing that has surprised me about the Tory leadership contest is how neither candidate have got into a bidding war over who could be tougher on industrial action and trade unions. When asked, Liz Truss and Rish! Sunak are mostly content to say they'd carry out the manifesto promise made in 2019. I.e. That for essential public infrastructure, the impacts of strikes would be mitigated by a mandatory skeleton service. Keen to carve out a future for himself under Truss, the Sunak-backing Grant Shapps - the country's occasional transport secretary - has outlined plans of his own to keep the workers down.

Taking to the pages of the Telegraph last Tuesday, Shapps said the Tories must "complete Margaret Thatcher's unfinished business." Framed by a litany of lies that come as freely to Tory ministers these days as brown envelopes from Russian oligarchs, Shapps's proposal is to ban strikes by different unions in the same workplace within a set period. For instance, if the RMT-organised railway staff are striking Thursday, ASLEF train drivers would not be allowed to walk off the job on Friday. Pickets for "critical national infrastructure" would be limited to six people, and Shapps would send the coppers down to striking workers to make sure they don't use "intimidatory language". The ballot paper would, by law, have the industrial action proposed written on it, and he implies the six month-long time period covered by the vote could be shortened. He also suggests 60 day cooling off periods after each strike. Shapps also wants to raise the notice period from two to four weeks, and the turnout threshold from 40% to 50%. In other words, the most restrictive labour laws ever seen in a Western liberal democracy are going to get even more repressive.

You can understand why the Tories are twitchy about the RMT and the sudden prominence of Mick Lynch. His plain-speaking media performances, and that of Eddie Dempsey have successfully challenged the dominant framings the Tory and Tory-adjacent broadcasters and newspapers have foisted on the dispute. Helping matters along is certainly the cost of living crisis and inflation. Masses of people tend to break with dominant and official narratives when what is propagated contradicts their lived experiences. Even the most right wing, anti-union, dyed-in-wool Tory supporter can't but notice the galloping fuel bills and the edging upwards of supermarket prices, and acknowledge that what the train companies are offering, at the government's behest, is a pay cut. It's on occasions like these when millions of people start questioning the old and start thinking anew - something Mick has recognised and used his platform to encourage. Even more worrying for the Tories, telecoms workers have come out, and posties, teachers, HE workers, nurses, doctors are about to or have threatened ballots of their own. And all this comes after a couple of years of relatively low-level but successful disputes by the new wave of independent unions, particularly in the gig economy, and key wins by the GMB and Unite. Both unions fought and won their pay claim against British Airways by threatening industrial action, and now pilots are threatening strikes after BA cut their salaries by a fifth during the acute moment of the pandemic and have not restored them. Furthermore, Unite won against Coventry City Council in the long running and bitter bin workers' dispute. Nothing breeds success like success, and all these taken together are creating the most favourable period for industrial action since the 1980s. It feels like something is in the air, because there is.

Shapps's measures are informed by this looming threat. But, given the context, is only likely to antagonise rather than browbeat the labour movement into submission. In the 1980s, Thatcher didn't finish the unions off for the simple reason that she understood hers was only a temporary victory. Had she followed up the miners' strike immediately with more repressive legislation, it would have given the labour movement a new point of unity and a fresh cause to rally against - one that would have set aside the divisions of the mid 80s. Instead she let things drift, and when the 1988 Employment Act appeared in the Commons it was mainly concerned with the internal mechanics of trade unions. The real curbs on strike action had come before Thatcher provoked her dispute with the NUM. The lesson she took was patience. She waited until the heat from 1984-5 died down, for the unions to wallow in the miasma of defeat, and then came for their privileges and added further conditions on collective action when they were weakened and demoralised. Where Thatcher came unstuck was forgetting the strategies she applied to smashing the labour movement. Having divided her opponents with some skill, her Poll Tax was a simultaneous attack on everyone. Faced with overwhelming opposition and a non-payment campaign millions strong, the game was up. Coming after her John Major was careful not to provoke such universal active opposition, and when New Labour took office Tony Blair likewise only took on comparatively small sections of the labour movement, backed by the repressive trade union legislation he did little to nothing to rectify.

What Shapps doesn't get is class relations can't be managed by coercion alone. If he pursues his schemes, presumably under Truss, he could end up not just provoking the more active unions but the entirety of the TUC. This is because he's attacking workers' bargaining positions and, also, the mediating role played by trade union officialdom between bosses and employees. Even quiescent unions like USDAW cannot tolerate so direct an attack. Shapps then is poised to make the mistake Thatcher never made in industrial relations: he's trying to assault the labour movement as a whole. And he does so in a period of labour ascendency with inflation driving workers into the unions. It's a moment the Tories could end up ruing if they persist. They could get their own way, but the antagonist they're provoking, their own internal divisions and incompetence, counts against their chances. We are cursed to live in interesting times, but one in which the spark of hope for labour has lit up again.

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Friday 29 July 2022

Local Council By-Elections July 2022

This month saw 34,735 votes cast in 22 local authority contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. Five council seats changed hands. For comparison with June's results, see here.

Number of Candidates
Total Vote
+/- July 21

* There were no by-elections in Scotland
** There were no by-elections in Wales
*** There were no independent clashes
**** Others running this month were Abolish the BBC Television Licence (61), Alliance for Democracy and Freedom (91), Coventry Citizens (746), National Housing Party No More Refugees (1), Reform UK (36, 37), Residents' Association of Epsom and Ewell (549), TUSC (46), UKIP (36), Women's Equality Party (27)

After the disasters of the last few months, things have calmed down a lot since Boris Johnson's resignation. At the beginning of July the Tories didn't have the funnest of times, but things have stabilised with no seats lost for a fortnight. Digging into the votes is a less reassuring picture for them, however. The observations made about the local election votes in May still holds. Meanwhile, Labour continues to do well. Admittedly, the healthy vote is mainly down to the preponderance of Labour defences (12 to the Tories' seven) but a win is a win. And the Liberal Democrats and Greens are nibbling away at the Tories as well - a process I can't see reversing any time soon.

Looking forward to August, we have a very quiet time ahead with only a handful of vacancies. Don't expect any seismic shifts. But come September and the increasingly likely installation of Liz Truss, we'll see if she can reverse Tory fortunes on the local government front.

7th July
Camden, Hampstead Town, LDem gain from Lab
Chesterfield, Hollingwood & Inkersall, Lab gain from Ind
Epsom & Ewell, West Ewell. Death of Clive Smitheram, Oth hold
Hackney, De Beauvoir, Lab hold
Milton Keynes, Woughton & Fishermead, Lab hold
Mole Valley, Charlwood, Grn gain from Con
Welwyn Hatfield, Hatfield Central, Lab hold
West Sussex, Worthing West, Lab hold

14th July
Breckland, Thetford Boudica, Lab gain from Con
Coventry, Binley & Willenhall, Lab hold
Hyndburn, Overton, Lab hold
North Tyneside, Camperdown, Lab hold
Rutland, Oakham South, LDem gain from Con (unopposed)
South Somerset, Brympton, LDem hold
Wandsworth, Tooting Broadway, Lab hold
Warwickshire, Arden, Con hold
Wirral, Liscard, Lab hold

20th July
Basildon, Nethermayne, Ind hold

21st July
Lancaster, Harbour, Lab hold
North Warwickshire, Hartshill, Con hold
South Staffordshire, Penkridge North East & Acton Trussell, Con hold

28th July
Colchester, Lexden & Braiswick, Con hold
North East Derbyshire, Pilsley & Morton, Lab hold

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Wednesday 27 July 2022

On Sam Tarry's Sacking

Riddle me this. If cabinet (or shadow cabinet) collective responsibility is so sacrosanct, why did Keir Starmer go before Labour Party conference in Autumn 2018 and, against the agreed line, call for a second refendum on Brexit? If it's not the job of a party of government to visit picket lines to offer workers support, then why in December 2019 did the Labour leader-to-be visit striking higher education workers and give them words of encouragement? And if Labour is in favour of nationalising the whole kit and kaboodle of the railways, why is Sam Tarry - sacked by Starmer for visiting a picket line and therefore breaking shadcab discipline - being accused of making policy up on the hoof?

Looking at the farce of the Tory leadership contest, how out of touch both candidates are with the country and the complete absence of a plan to address the cost of living crisis, one might suppose Labour would dispatch either at a general election without much trouble. But remember the Tories' secret weapon! Not the press, not the jerrymandering of constituencies, not even the inevitable pre-election bribes, but the blunderstorm of Keir Starmer's leadership. Like a bolt from the literal blue, Starmer has unequivocally ruled out nationalisation of the utilities, despite it being a popular policy and the most effective means of bringing energy prices - now due to top £4,000 by January - under control. No budging on this, despite the Gallic Blair tribute act across the Channel doing just that to EDF Energy. And as the Tories face a blast of industrial disputes, Starmer fetches out the wind break to help them. By sacking Sam from his shadow brief, calamity Keir has detonated a major row just at the moment of maximum Conservative pain.

Starmer's self-appointed praetorians among the press pack have repeated the lines to take. This isn't about industrial action, they say, it's about discipline. This argument will not and does not wash. While it's true Labour has a long and vexed relationship to strikes, that doesn't alter the fundamental facts that the movement the party depends on for money, activists, and votes was born out of industrial action. History teaches us where labour movements are strong, societies tend to be more equal, democratic, and pleasant to live in. Enough, you might think, for the most milquetoast Labourite to make the link between victorious strikes, stronger trade unions, and a fairer society.

What Starmer has done by sacking Sam is letting everyone know he thinks industrial action is illegitimate. If you are banning shadow ministers and bag carriers from attending picket lines, but not issuing edicts against them joining lobbies, protests, demonstrations, or occasionally taking part in stunts, you're singling out strikes as a special case. This is not about discipline per se but the enforcement of discipline against showing solidarity. It is an expressly anti-working class move.

It's not difficult to discern why Starmer has done this. Ever keen to show wealthy business types who still aren't donating to Labour in anywhere near the amounts needed, he has to show them - the people who matter in Starmer's universe - that he'll protect their interests. Labour as the sensible B team of British capitalism now the Tories are going off the deep end. He has to placate the right wing press who, in the main, have given him an easy ride - the ludicrous incidence of Beergate notwithstanding. There are the voters Starmer is trying to chase (never mind the current ones that have to be kept on board). Lastly, let's not forget the man's utter cowardice. Having ridden the second referendum wedge all the way into office, he's terrified of being seen as for something because that puts him against something. Being for nationalisation places him at odds with shareholders big and small in the utilities. Confronting transphobia on his own front bench gives the Tories a war on woke angle. And saying standing up for working people without standing with working people will, apparently, stop rightwingers from calling the Labour Party a nest of militants.

The damage is done. Leading trade unionists aren't daft enough to fall for the "disciplinary" line, and anyone not compromised morally and intellectually from throwing their lot in with Starmer will buy it. This, more than anything else, demonstrates what to expect from a government led by him. We might get the day one rights at work he's keen to talk about, but apart from that, nothing. It will be a return to the years of Blair and Brown, where unions were recognised as just one pressure group among many and no "special favours" were extended or even entertained. Perhaps the penny is dropping among those union leaders who've got Starmer's back and supported his attacks. There will be nothing for them, because fundamentally his politics are at odds with those of our movement.

What a pathetic state of affairs.

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Monday 25 July 2022

Truss's to Lose

Francis Maude is worried. The grandee is concerned that the Tory party is falling apart over the leadership contest and casting itself into the gutter. On the last point, his lordship evidently hasn't paid attention since July 2019. Speaking to the BBC this evening, he said:
One is obviously going to win the leadership, but if the behaviour of the teams and their language has been uncontrolled, and it has damaged the party’s standing or the way people see the party, then it could end up being a Pyrrhic victory.
It's true. I've never seen such a juvenile briefing and counter briefing from the candidates' teams. The irrepressible Nadine Dorries did Liz Truss a solid by contrasting Rish! Sunak's nice shoes and even nicer suits to Truss's five quid earrings from Claire's Accessories. Ouch. Similarly, beef has been traded over their respective schooling, after Truss was found to have massaged the facts about her alma mater.

The truth is Sunak's in big trouble. The favourite among the MPs, the margin between him and Truss is only growing - if we take YouGov's latest poll of members for good coin. In the sort of panic characteristic of the politically flat footed, his supposedly sensible Toryism is now junked and he's taken on even more right wing positions. Sunak has confirmed the privatisation of Channel Four, sticking with the Rwanda transportation scheme, tearing out anything smelling of China's influence in the UK, and going round describing his philosophy as "commonsense Thatcherism".

It's unlikely tonight's debate on the BBC did Sunak many favours either. Poor old Maude must have been at home despairing at the spectacle on his screen. Broadcasting from the holiest of holies (i.e. Stoke-on-Trent), it was testier than the previous outing with barbs routinely exchanged between the candidates. I will grant them this, there is a genuine difference between them. Sunak wants to keep his National Insurance rise and go for the higher moral ground of fiscal conservatism, whereas Truss wants to cancel it and get day-to-day borrowing to pay for it. For Sunak this imperils the "sound money" philosophy and stokes inflationary pressures, for Truss keeping the tax rises takes money out of people's pockets and makes recession more likely. To the average Tory member, abstractions like deficits and public sector borrowing count for nothing against increasing energy, petrol, and food prices. Truss understands this. For all her limitations, what she has picked up from Johnson is an approach where the economics should be driven by the politics - something Sunak has forgotten. And this is the main reason why she leads.

The BBC did their best to help both candidates. The inclusion of Chris Mason and Faisal Islam as politics and economics editors respectively gave the policy discussion more form when it might have become a simple slug fest, and the host Sophie Raworth provided some nice soft questions about fashion (recalling the Dorries attack), how people at home can tackle the climate crisis, and asked the candidates to speak words of friendly advice to each other. What an unparalleled bargain the TV licence is. Still, moments after the debate ended it was a hoot to hear Truss's camp saying "Rish! Sunak has tonight proven he is not fit for office ... His aggressive mansplaining and shouty private school behaviour is desperate, unbecoming and is a gift to Labour."

This doesn't mean Truss is fit either, but the anonymous briefer makes a good point. Sunak is both a smoother and more confident performer than the Foreign Secretary, and has clearly decided all-in means talking over Truss, interrupting her, and trying to edge her out of the debate with boorish, almost Johnsonian debating tricks. It looks bad, but obviously Sunak and co. think this might make Truss look weak and unable to defend her corner. Not good for her when she's made great play about standing up to Putin. Alas, a snap poll from Opinium of Conservative supporters had her down as the winner by 47% to Sunak's 38%. We've just had one Prime Minister brought down by arrogance. Members might be less than keen to invest in a candidate with the same character trait.

For Truss the first week of proper campaigning has got off to a good start. She has the initiative, and Sunak is forced to try anything to regain it. If tonight's entertainment is anything to go by, this contest is Truss's to lose.

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Friday 22 July 2022

Apparatuses of Capture

Another filler post? Sorry. Something will be appearing tomorrow night for another outlet on the final two in the Tory leadership race, but in case you're wondering where my piece on the Forde report is, Tribune has it. Give it a read if you haven't already.

No writing means showing off someone else's work, and here we have a discussion between the Acid Horizon comrades on Deleuze and Guattari. Some light listening for a Friday night!

Wednesday 20 July 2022

Too Much Politics

For a sad sack like me, there can never be too much politics. The problem is reflecting on the big ticket items of the day - the release of the long awaited Forde Report and the whittling down of the Tory leadership contest to the final two - are beyond my abilities to write about simultaneously. How about just one, then? Alas, the piece promised yesterday on Labour and Forde has been written (all 1,500 words of it), but it's now destined to appear elsewhere. Look out for that in the morning. And the other big issue? Yes, a piece on the Tory leadership contest is in preparation. But that's been promised to another outlet as well. Expect it to land tomorrow evening if the fates allow it.

That means for now, as far as blog coverage is concerned, we're turning matters over to the Novara comrades whose show tonight has covered both topics!

Tuesday 19 July 2022

Kryder & B Jones - Girlfriend

It went from a rumour to a published report in fewer than 24 hours. At last, the much delayed Forde Report into Labour factionalism and that leaked document has landed. I've read it cover to cover, hence no proper post tonight, and will pen something in due course. But if you want some quick takes from me to accompany all the others doing the rounds, here's a very short Twitter thread to tide you over.

Until my reflections appear, here's a top tune to keep you going. An underrated and unjustly unknown composition redolent of sunshine and golden beaches, here it comes:

Monday 18 July 2022

In Praise of the Tory TV Debates

There has been a lot of chatter about the Tory leadership debates. With two in the bag, Liz Truss and Rish! Sunak pulled out of the third due to be hosted by Sky News on Monday evening. I was disappointed, and not because my freakish tastes extend to sterile point scoring between different shades of Toryism. But because the leadership contests were good, actually. Let me explain.

The contests proved three things. The first was how empty the party is of ideas. Harking back to Channel Four's debate, having bolted out the gates promising tax cuts of one description or another there was little evidence of original thinking. Penny Mordaunt showed hints of new directions, but mostly her platform is Johnsonism without its Johnson. Kemi Badenoch made the most radical proposal in her desire to subject the Treasury to direct political control (something Labour should advocate, by the way) but the interest ended there. We got permutations of war on woke, anti-green posturing, hawkish warmongering and nothing else. Collectively they demonstrated a party knackered after 12 years and without much of a clue where to go next, let alone overcome its own crisis of political reproduction.

Second, no amount of friendly write ups in the Tory press hailing these "exceptional candidates" can hide the fact they are anything but. As "outsiders" Tom Tugendhat and Badenoch failed to inspire insurgent energy. They weren't charismatic, nor were their respective "I was in the army you know" and "I'll tell you things you don't want to hear" postures any good for capturing thw imagination of the immediate selectorate - the MPs. As for Mordaunt, her performance was so-so and she had a hard time shutting down her shifty behaviour over trans issues. From saying trans women are women to being against self ID, all she's done is hole her ship beneath the water line and made herself look dishonest and opportunist. As for Sunak and Truss, the former chancellor had nothing in the tank except for more of the same, and the foreign secretary tried to out-Thatcher Thatcher with her tax cuts. All of them showed themselves up to be lightweights with no answers to the serious problems the country faces.

Lastly, the occasional tipping of Sunday night's debate into character assassination and the trashing of the last 12 years of government were why the plug was pulled on the Sky show. Labour "insiders" have been all over the press saying how they can't believe their luck. And while gloating is an unedifying business, an attack on Sunak from Truss and vice versa carries more weight then swipes from Keir Starmer and the shadow ministers. Not only is this good fodder for the opposition, it raises the question about whether the party can unite behind the new PM come September. This wasn't a problem for Johnson or, even further back, Dave's victory over David Davis, but then again there hasn't been a Tory contest where the gloves have come off quite like this in public.

Contrary to other lefties moaning about the contest taking up prime time TV, they have helped encourage Tory division, shown up the dishonesty and feebleness of their character, and demonstrated that they have no answers. And this has set the tone for print and broadcast media coverage. The only thing wrong with the TV debates? There wasn't enough of them.

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Sunday 17 July 2022

Who Won the ITV Tory Leadership Debate?

Having already had one televised debate, there wasn't much hope tonight's blue-on-blue action would add much to the discourse. But happily, it did poison the well and provide opposition parties with more zingers for the next general election.

It's interesting. Some candidates are aware that once the contest is over the Tory party have to appear unified behind their new Prime Minister. This is the case with Penny Mordaunt and Tom Tugendhat and (mostly) Rish! Sunak, whereas Kemi Badenoch and Liz Truss are happy to go all in without regard to party discipline or how they might manage a parliamentary party if they win. For instance, the three draw the line of the last three years of failure at Boris Johnson's faults. Nothing else is wrong, we just need to begin again (a "clean start", you might say) and go from there. Truss and Badenoch have no truck with these considerations. For Truss, her target was Sunak's National Insurance rise and record generally. In the back and forth between the candidates on economics, a much more confident Truss attacked the former chancellor for the highest tax burden for 70 years, and on the question of Bank of England independence Truss got a dig in about two years of economic stagnation with Sunak at the Treasury. On character, Truss said she didn't resign during the ministerial rebellion that brought Johnson down because it would have been a dereliction of duty, or some such rubbish. The clear implication that ambition mattered more than integrity for Sunak. And not to be outdone, in her tailored question Badenoch accused Sunak of not taking Covid loan fraud seriously. He waffled an answer about loan repayments, but the damage was done. Those Labour billboards were writing themselves.

Sunak did hit back with a few barbs of his own. Replying to Truss's accusation he was driving the economy into recession, he argued her spending plans, which involve a big corporation tax cut, were "socialism". Going after Mordaunt for suggesting that the Tories shouldn't be so precious about the debt, he said that borrowing for day-to-day spending was something so "dangerous" that even Jeremy Corbyn didn't go there. And on the questions they could ask other candidates, he recalled Truss's previous life as a Liberal Democrat and a remain campaigner and asked which one she regretted the most. Bitchy.

It was not without interesting moments about more substantive issues. Asked about the five per cent proposed rise in public sector pay and the prospect of strike action against a real terms cut, Mordaunt dodged the question with a "now's the time not to discuss detail". Tugendhat said it should be left to independent public pay bodies to determine. Truss said the government had to negotiate with the unions but remain firm lest it sparks a wage-price spiral. Profit-price spirals are seemingly fine. Tugendhat came back in with strikes and the break down in industrial relations as an issue of trust. Action wouldn't happen if unions felt the negotiators were on their side. Badenoch also (surprisingly) found a conciliatory note, saying unions "deserved respect", but prefaced this with a claim years of economic stagnation meant government couldn't afford decent public sector pay. Not that flat growth has harmed profits, mind. Truth telling can only go so far.

Tonight's debate was a tussle between Sunak and Truss, with the other candidates playing walk-on parts. Tugendhat was the one to dial it in, obviously aware that he's out in the next round of voting. Badenoch got her "I was a minimum wage kid flipping burgers" line in, and promised to tell the truth. One truth that was probably best left unsaid was her swipe at Tugendhat for not serving on the the front lines of government. He was quick to snap back about actual front lines.

According to quick polling by Opinium, 24% thought Sunak came out top. Tugendhat and Mordaunt were runners up on 19% and 17% respectively, with Truss and Badenoch scoring 15% and 12%. In truth, in as much as these things matter, Sunak again looked like he knew what he was talking about. Truss was much improved on her last outing. She was more spiky, whereas what was previously described as "Mordmentum" appears to have deserted the former favourite. According to ConHome's (unrepresentative) poll of its audience, Badenoch is now favourite among the membership. She wins in every permutation of run off, whereas Truss wins three and loses one, and Sunak is evens on two wins, two losses. Which leaves open the possibility of the MPs denying members the contest they want, or the members give the MPs the leader they don't want. The last time this happened was when Iain Duncan Smith took the helm, and you might recall the problems that caused. The result is pregant with division.

Who won the ITV debate? It's tempting to provide the same cliched answer from Friday, but judging from the bad tempers and assaults on the leading candidates' records, it's possible, just possible that tonight's loser is the Conservative Party itself.

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Saturday 16 July 2022

The Hard Right and the Far Right

Commenting on my analysis of Penny Mordaunt's leadership bid, and the point about her potential meddling with the Treasury upsetting the right, James Meadway noted that "a Brexity section of the right hate HMT, too - talking Brexit down, putting out Remainer forecasts, etc." He's right, so I think we need to think about what we mean by "the right" of the Tory party.

Eager watchers of the Brexit saga are well aware of the European Research Group on the backbenches, the self-appointed guardians of ensuring the UK left the EU. But there are other groups too. We've mentioned the Northern Research Group (no prizes for guessing which part of the country it draws support from), the One Nation grouping, the No Turning Back group, the Covid Recovery Group (the formal name of the anti-maskers), and loads of others. But while the Tory right can concentrate around some groups, with the ERG being the most notable, it tends to cut across these variously formalised factions.

I think it's useful to think about the Tory right in two ways, so here's a rule of thumb. On the one hand you have the hard right. What characterises them is a fealty to market fundamentalism, whether because they're ideologically convinced of their rightness and/or because it grows out of their class affinity with the interests the Tory party brings together. Rish! Sunak and Sajid Javid hail from this faction, and it has the most cross over with the Tory establishment. Thatcher worship, anti-worker militancy, obsessions with cutting taxes and gutting public services are what they're about.

And then we have the far right. This is the term usually reserved for fascist outfits like the BNP, For Britain (now defunct), the National Front, etc. But givent their virtual eradication it makes sense to use it in the context of the Tory party. When the right are pushing hard against trans rights, are actively agitating for pushing refugees back into the sea, regularly trot out "Cultural Marxist" and Great Reset conspiracies, take the "war on woke" as a core strategy for winning votes, openly agitates for the abandonment of the ECHR and the abandonment of green targets, all that's missing from this entirely negative prospectus is the BNP logo. As watchers of Britain's fascist movement are well aware, the BNP abandoned - at least in its public-facing propaganda - a stress on biological racism in the 90s and emphasised essential cultural differences between "British values" and the religious and cultural practices of certain minority ethnicities. And in the 00s the BNP reaped some limited success with 60-odd councillors and two MEPs. The Tory far right are likewise "culturalist" and have subsumed this project. Its culturalism allows it to count Priti Patel and Suella Braverman among its number, with Kemi Badenoch as its remaining standard bearer in the leadership contest.

There are commonalities between the two groupings. As broad camps, both are entirely at ease with and indeed favour an authoritarian state. Nor are they entirely mutually exclusive. Jacob Rees-Moog, for instance, is in equal parts neoliberal and identarian. But despite the overlaps, the differences matter. The hard right tend more toward the emerging social liberal consensus on identity matters, and the far right are happier to say "fuck business", to coin a phrase, if it conflicts with their project. Badenoch's embarrassing attack on Ben and Jerry's, the purveyors of over-priced ice cream, at her leadership launch is a case in point. And the continuity remain criticisms James flagged up is another.

When we talk about the right in the Tories we need to be clear about which right we're talking about. The job of political comment is to inform and explain, after all.

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Friday 15 July 2022

Bruisefest or Snoozefest?

Long time readers know I come from the Tory-voting working class. When John Major swept to his unexpected victory 30 years ago, I feigned illness so I could skip school and watch the election coverage the day after. Mercifully my politics moved on shortly afterwards, but something of that moment has stayed with me. What a Tory supporter looks for in their politicians and the promises they make is something I understand, and at times like Conservative Party leadership contests I try listening to my teenaged Tory self and if he's impressed by any of the runners and riders. In 2005 he would definitely have gone for Dave, and in the aborted 2016 contest Theresa May would have been the choice. 2019 and the enthusiasm would have been with our friend Rory Stewart, but the head would have gone with Jeremy Hunt to keep Boris Johnson out. And in 2022? He's undecided, and Channel Four's leadership debate hasn't clarified matters.

Less bruisefest and more snoozefest, being boring has become the leadership hustings tradition of late. Arrayed on the stage, only Tom Tugendhat showed any life - even if his policy offering is utterly vapid. He did get his 'Clean Start' soundbite out, but then reverted to character. At one point he emoted his gratitude to the NHS for rehabilitating his military colleagues to the point of almost blubbing. But apart from answering a question straight ("Is Boris Johnson honest? No") and raising a laugh, he was utterly forgettable. In fact, I completely missed his closing speech. Despite not moving from the sofa and having the telly on in front of me. No Cleggmania-style insurgency for him.

Nor for Kemi Badenoch. Obviously, she and Tugendhat have clung on hoping this weekend's slew of debates will boost their fortunes. I doubt they will here either. She bristled when Krishnan Guru-Murthy read out her bona fides as the privileged daughter of the globe trotting upper middle class - not the minimum wage earning, burger-flipping McDonald's employed teenager she contrives herself as. And, I have to say, this fire and determination that has attracted the likes of Michael Gove to her corner was not much in evidence. She wanted to stake the claim for the keeping it real/telling it how it is candidate. "Things need to be said", she said, and then spent her time waffling saying a great deal about comparatively little. She said government offers nothing but trade offs, and one of these is scrapping the green levy on energy bills to deal with the inflation spiral. Predictably, with the price cap set to accelerate by more than a thousand pounds this Autumn she did not specify how saving bill payers £150 would assist. The NHS also needs to work smarter, not harder, and it definitely doesn't need more money.

If these two were bad, Liz Truss went home with the wooden spoon. Incredibly robotic, very uncomfortable, she trotted out the "delivery" cliches. Among them were her trade deal with Australia, which actually disadvantages UK farmers, and her deal with Japan whose marginal improvement on the trading relationship we had via the EU is microscopic to non-existent as big wins. If these are achievements, I'd hate to see what failure looks like. Truss did pledge to reverse the National Insurance hike and, (rightly!), argued borrowing more now and restructuring the "Covid debt" was a better option than keeping the Tory tax rises. Though, naturally this being the Conservative contest, no thought was given to asking the party's wealthy backers to fork out more. Truss was also the candidate who said 'Vladimir Putin' more than anyone else, and kept banging on about nuclear. Power, that is. Not weapons.

Rish! Sunak probably had the best of the "debate". As the former chancellor and most responsible for the economy, he was also the one most across his brief. In an odd outbreak of toing and froing with Truss over the debt, he rattled off the greatest hits from Coalitions years. "You can't tackle borrowing by more borrowing" he said, though it was left to Badenoch to chime in with the magic money tree cliche. He said inflation was his number one challenge, and - the unsaid subtext here - is his refusal to countenance reversing his National Insurance increase recalls the money supply dogma that informed the first phase of Thatcherism. Despite saying "he knew" how tough it was out there, and how his £1,200 payment to the poorest third of the population will really help millions, he can't escape the clutches of locating inflation in too generous wages. Nothing to do with profiteering, nothing to do with Ukraine - which even the hapless Truss recognised.

And what about the new frontrunner. Did Penny Mordaunt convince? Like the others, she dialled it in. She mouthed platitudes about bringing the country together and realising the opportunities of Brexit - a position now shared by Keir Starmer. She "spoke truth to power", without really elaborating on what that meant. But in all she didn't advance much on her leadership launch. Even the piercing dog whistle on trans issues got blown as she, Badenoch, and Truss affected a concern for women's spaces. You know, the sort of concern that has seen the Tories preside over a persistent funding crisis for domestic abuse services and the closure of almost a fifth of women's refuges since 2010. On economic growth, this can be wished into existence by organising things better, energy price inflation can be tackled through greater use of renewables, and the NHS needs to use more modern technology. Perhaps the most interesting thing she said was a brief comment at the start of her pitch that said the finance of the Tory party needs to change. Interesting.

My inner Tory wasn't convinced by anyone, and of the audience of 50 or so swing voters only 10 said they were now prepared to vote Tory after this plodding facsimile of a debate. With another full debate to go, followed by the final three or two candidates on Tuesday, might we see more desperate attempts to impress? The use of more attack lines that can help keep Labour leafleters going for the next few years? Either way, one thing is for certain. Whoever wins we all lose.

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Thursday 14 July 2022

Who is Penny Mordaunt?

Then there were five. Having made a big speech about withdrawing from the ECHR, a blink of an eye later Suella Braverman was knocked out of the contest with a paltry 27 MPs to her name. If there's any justice, we won't be hearing from her again. But displacing Rish! Sunak as the bookies' favourite is Penny Mordaunt. The insider "outsider" who has "surprised" everyone with the depth and range of her support, and how she's snapping at the former chancellor's heels and has left the hapless Liz Truss trailing them both by a decent margin. Nothing breeds success like success, and yesterday's YouGov poll of Tory members has helped ensure Mordaunt's challenge is in the big league. Whether the inevitable retirements of Tom Tugendhat and Kemi Badenoch will see Sunak and Truss force her out of the contest is doubtful, but not beyond the range of possibility. But if, the poll is to be believed, Mordaunt makes it to the final two and goes on to win, what kind of Prime Minister can we expect? A case of Penny Mordor, Penny Dreadful or, groan, Penny's from Heaven?

There have been some items of interest in her pitches so far. At her launch we some some movement in the envelope of Tory thinking. The first, which she might rue, is slimming down the cabinet. When putting together front benches all Prime Ministers and Leaders of the Opposition have to balance out ability, political proximity, and party management. If leading figures from some wings of the party aren't in, the more likely they and their allies will cause mischief. Johnson's over-large cabinet and the swollen payroll of junior ministers, under secretaries, and bag carriers were about buying loyalty. It's certainly what saved him from his no confidence vote. If Mordaunt reduces its size, the more party discipline will become a problem. And, as we will see, that could become a problem.

The second was her remarks about the Treasury. She argued it needed shaking up and its spending round be brought in sync with business and the third sector calendar. This makes planning and joint working much easier. While true and is something sensible from a wonkish viewpoint, Mordaunt is dallying with the holiest of holies here. The merry go round of personnel that flit between the Treasury, the Bank of England, and the City has underpinned the primacy of commercial and (later) financial capital for centuries, securing the nexus between the economic interest of the hegemonic fraction of British capital and the political machinery of state. The Tories are historically most closely associated with and keenest defenders of this configuration of British political economy. They are more the party of the City than the party of business as a whole. Hence one reason why Europe and Brexit was such an acute issue was because it reflected real divisions of opinion in the City - is it best served by remaining in the EU, or do greater opportunities await outside of its regulatory regime? Mordaunt however ia threatening to encroach on the large degree of autonomy the Treasury enjoys in the UK state apparatus and subordinate it what she perceives as her political priorities. After all, one of the excuses trotted out by Johnson's friendly press is their levelling up failures are thanks to Treasury opposition. This move could be seen, and will be interpreted by some in the City, as an inching away from their priorities. But this change not something Mordaunt alone has suggested. Badenoch has argued for the Treasury to be brought into Number 10 - it's possible Mordaunt might do the same if her chancellor is not as beholden to the City as Sunak was/is, and her political life depends on rebalancing the relationship. Interesting.

Mordaunt also discussed fixing the state so it can do things again. An institution so decrepit that it can't issue passports in a timely fashion or meet the demand for dentistry is not in a position to meet the country's pressing problems. But for those mistakenly thinking this is a return to the (rhetorical) One Nationism of Theresa May, or the occasional Johnsonian affectations in this direction, one of her "solutions" to the cost of living crisis betrays the same old Toryism. On tax cuts, Mordaunt said she would cut fuel duty and keep raising the income tax threshold in line with inflation to put money in people's pockets. See the problem? For one, this doesn't help the poorest who are already below the point where PAYE kicks in. Second, the better off get a bigger tax cut. Once you fall below the threshold no more benefits accrue. This raising of thresholds, which acquired favoured Conservative policy status after the Liberal Democrats introduced it in the Coalition years helps lighten the fiscal responsibility on the highly paid - always a key Tory policy objective.

If Johnson had taken his promises seriously, we might see Mordaunt as his obvious successor. But like the Downing Street squatter, she has something else in common: what we might euphemistically describe as a tendency to dishonesty. In the heat of the EU referendum, she made a brazen lie about the UK not having a veto over Turkey's entry into the EU. This was in the context of a major scaremongering campaign run by Vote Leave that suggested 80 million Turks would move here unless we left. Water under the bridge? Challenged about this by Iain Dale on LBC, she double downed on the lie. On Wednesday, Mordaunt was hawking around the endorsement of Sarah Atherton. What attracted the honourable member for Wrexham to Mordaunt's campaign is the fact Mordaunt's a "military woman". Except, of course, she isn't. She might think of herself as one, having run a few assault courses as a Royal Navy reservist, hanging around with sailors, and losing a bet with navy pals that meant she had to say 'cock' in a speech in the Commons, but none of this makes her "military". It's embarrassing. And then we have the Twitter episode where she aligned herself with sundry transphobes, and at her launch said "I think it was Margaret Thatcher who said that every Prime Minister needs a willy. A woman like me doesn't have one." This is gutter opportunism to curry votes from the Tories' bigoted selectorate: she was previously on record as supporting trans rights.

In other words, Mordaunt is continuity Johnson in more ways than one. Her problem, however, is that the batshit right know she's not sincere about trans rights and already have her down as woke. Know that, despite being a Brexiteer, the right have it in for her because she supported May's Brexit deal. I'm sure her fiddling with the Treasury will annoy the right as well. They already have their excuses to cause trouble, and cause trouble they will. If Sunak and Truss collaborate to lock her out of the final two, that will cause a great deal of upset in the party, both in the Commons and in the country. Should she not get blocked and, presumably, Mordaunt faces off against Rish!, for the increasingly unhinged right of the party it's a liberal/woke/remainer conspiracy to undo Brexit, let workery reign, and deliver up the country to the sinister dictates of the World Economic Forum. It will take a while for this to work its way through the parliamentary right, but as night follows day the divisions will come.

Penny Mordaunt then presents as a fresh face, and indeed she is for most members of the public. But, politically speaking, she's Boris Johnson lite. A bit more serious, perhaps, on delivering the programme he promised, and not as egregious a liar, but it's all there ready to see. Her administration, should she enter Number 10, will be as duplicitous as it is damaging. Its fundamental programme doesn't change, but the good news is her victory would add more fuel to the long-running crisis of the Conservative Party. Right now she might appear to be the party's saviour. Instead, she could easily end up becoming its undertaker.

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