Monday 1 April 2024

Routing the Tories is Good, Actually

When one affects to know about politics, there's always a risk of embarrassment. Take the recent pearls of Russ Jones, vendor of book length lists of damaging Tory policies and antics. This dogged foe of the Conservative Party told his not insubstantial following that if they are eviscerated at the next election, they "won't won't even have enough MPs to fill their allocated committee roles". This is bad because a weak opposition leads to poor government. If Labour are to be a "social democratic government" they need a decent Tory opposition "that keeps them focused". If I was Russ, I'd keep to the witty business of contriving portmanteau swear words over craft beers.

Let's consider some recent evidence. John Major's small majority in 1992 and, in conventional terms, the effective opposition of John Smith and Tony Blair should have meant that his government was focused. Instead it was the byword for chaotic government, until the last four Tory Prime Ministers determined new yardsticks for fractiousness and dysfunction. Similarly, even though the Tories were still far behind Labour in 2005, once Dave was elected the liberal green affectations and the snake oil marketeering hardly induced discipline into the government's ranks. After Gordon Brown bottled the election that never was, compounded by debacles such as the abolition of the 10p tax rate for low earners and MPs' expenses, fissures were driven through the parliamentary party. Again, Dave's smooth, electorally popular media-savvy opposition did not make Labour put on its grown-up pants. If Keir Starmer's Labour was to win a modest majority instead of the silly numbers pollsters are suggesting, would that mean "better" government?

Russ is basing his assertion on nothing. It's magical thinking based on constitutional conjuring. For one, the politics is absent. For example, looking at the Conservative Party's now, if Labour were to only win a modest majority what's stopping the Tories tearing off further to the right? That's going to happen anyway, but on the other hand if they did better than expected the Tories are not going to stop being racist, or clamouring for more tax cuts, because they will credit their better than expected result on these position-takings. And this causes Labour a problem. Starmer has shown time and again that he's prepared to ditch policies in anticipation of establishment opposition, so why would he be any different facing off against a more viable Tory opposition of Russ's imagination? The next leader after Rishi Sunak could have a go at driving Starmer from opposition, and with past behaviour as our guide to future behaviour they'd make a pretty good fist of it.

As has been noted around these parts, the powers that be take a much keener interest in Labour Party and labour movement politics than we do with their parties and movements. Through donations, lobbying, endorsements, patronage, media coverage, policy promotion, flattery, and a million and one other stratagems, since Labour became an electorally viable party they have sought to contain and shape Labourist politics. And they've found more than plenty willing partners/supplicants in the ranks of our movement. For the same reason, we should take an interest in the politics and the fate of the Conservative Party. Not because it can ever be won over as a vehicle for working class interests, but rather to blunt it as an instrument in future bosses' offensives against our people.

We want to be in a position where we can dictate terms, but we're not there by a long chalk. But we do need to recognise two things. For as long as there is a capitalist society, there will always be a mass audience (of varying sizes and dispositions) for some kind of conservative politics. And second, despite his politics, his efforts at serenading the interests that were happy with the Tories five minutes ago, and pledging his eternal fealty to the contrivances of the status quo, Starmer is about to inflict a historic defeat on the Tories. Or, to be more accurate given the absence of enthusiasm for him, a rout they're bringing on themselves. And this crushing, contrary to Russ's ignorant musings, is good for politics.

The Tories are about to learn that the audience for their politics is narrow. Their positioning makes sense as their base faces disintegration right now, but it can never be the path back to mainstream success. The election to come won't disabuse them of this notion, and it's not likely the next one will either. After then any putative Tory leader has got to reckon the coalition that won Boris Johnson his election is impossible, and cleave to where the mainstream will be. Which is going to be more socially liberal, more resistant to beggar-thy-neighbour scapegoating politics, are serious about green/ecological modernisation, have greater expectations about housing and the quality of work, and want the state - be it local or national - to provide a functioning public infrastructure. It will also be a context where the institutional power of the right wing press is even more diminished. Even is Starmer's authoritarian modernisation doesn't deliver on any of these, this is where public opinion will likely be. And so, on the balance of probabilities, the centre right are going to have to reinvent themselves to compete. Can they?

It's a question of not having a choice. If the Tories don't purge their far right wing and adapt, the Liberal Democrats will be more than happy to resume their 19th century role as a pillar of the political establishment and move into the political space the Conservatives are vacating. Either way, the annihilation of the Tories at the ballot box followed by a difficult time reorienting to a politics defined by Starmer's technocratic politics, and an opposition dynamic skewing away from the right is good for politics in general because it boxes out overt racism, xenophobia and transphobia, and makes scapegoating harder - though that won't stop Labour from having a go. If the likes of Russ want to see mainstream politics approach the liberal utopia that distorts their view of the world, there's more chance of this happening if the Tories are routed utterly.

As far as the labour movement are concerned, the near destruction of the Tories are to be welcomed. With them down for the count, the scope for successful opposition to and pressure on Starmer widens. It's understandable why some on the left think simply not being the Tories is not enough and people deserve better. And who can disagree? But we're standing on the threshold of the Conservative Party being banished from office and its coalition being thrown into crisis for a generation. This is definitely happening regardless of the (oft bad-tempered) debates about who the left should vote for. What deserves more thought is how this new situation can offer the left and the labour movement real opportunities to remake and reshape the politics of this country.

Image Credit


Playwright said...

The way things are going, I could see Tory and Labour settling comfortably into a coalition government - two cheeks of the same arse, as Galloway observed. It happened in Ireland, with Fine Gael and Fianna Fail seamlessly cohabiting, after pretending for decades they were different parties. Starmer has had no trouble fitting his 'principles' into Tory policies, so why not go the whole hog?

McIntosh said...

It could be worth while looking at the Canadian experience. The Progressive Conservatives were routed in the 90s but by the 2000s had merged with another right wing grouping and were back in power. So 'our' Conservatives could see a way forward in absorbing/merging/linking with Reform and removing the divisions on the right.
The Conservatives have absorbed other right wing parties in the past - Liberal Unionists - and being out of power will focus their minds on what they need to do to get back to their natural position.

Boffy said...

I agreed with everything you say up to the last paragraph. Decimating the Tories would be good for all the reasons you say. It would also normally be the case that a large PLP majority would open space, inside it for rebellions, and so on. However, not only is the Campaign Group found to be useless, but Starmer's Bonapartist regime has made such opposition far more difficult, and that will intensify after he gets into Number 10. He is already using ex-Intelligence Services outfits to police the membership, and restrict access to meetings etc. The main opposition is going to come from extra-parliamentary means, which will require socialists to pay more attention to democratising and securing control of the unions.

Where I disagree with your last para, is the idea that the Tories will be out of the running for a generation. My guess is that Starmer is going to lose all the froth of Labour's soft support very quickly. Its based purely on hostility to the Tories, but unlike with Blair, who at least pumped large amounts into the NHS, local government and so on, as well as introducing the Minimum Wage, Starmer is offering bugger all, and less. Big fights with workers are inevitable, much as with Macron, and as with Biden's intervention against US dockers an rail workers.

In the US that has opened the door to Trump, and in France to Le pen. In Germany the same is seen with Scholtz. In Greece, it hasn't taken long for the centre-right to return after the failure of PASOK and then Syriza. A rapid rise in hostility to Starmer will fuel, on the one hand Reform, and those to its Right, but, as I also wrote in a comment, here, a couple of weeks ago, opens the door for the conservative social-democratic wing of the Conservative Party to again ally with the Liberals, on the ground of the interests of large-scale industrial capital, a return to the EU, and so on. They could be back in 2028.

Zoltan Jorovic said...

The underlying political philosophy of all major parties is the same - neoliberalism. The differences are in exactly how to apply it. The back and forth between 'left' and 'right' across Europe reflects that the operating system of government, under either side, is set according to neoliberal theory. Until we can shift conventional wisdom away from the idea that the market has all the answers, and government just needs to find the right framework and everything will run perfectly, it will continue like this. So, yes the Tories will surge back because labour will fail. It seems likely that the Tories will shift further rightward, too.

There are two fundamental issues. The first is that letting the satisfying of people's desires drive the development of our society, with no consideration of whether the way it is being done might be damaging the support structures we depend on, or destroying the fundamentals we need to survive, is lunatic. The second is that our current setup moves wealth inexorably upwards and concentrates it. This can only lead to authoritarian control, or revolution. Probably both. That's if some sort of societal collapse through environmental breakdown doesn't happen first.

Anonymous said...

Anyone who bigs up the almost literally non-existent chance of a Tory-Labour coalition basically has potentially terminal Extremely Online Hard Left brainworms, and needs to regain some real world contact urgently.

Barring a WW2-type situation, the chances of it are much less than 0.1%.

Rodney said...

From a left wing perspective this argument is strong and compelling but Russ is a neoliberal and he wants different outcomes. He and other cosy neoliberals know the status quo is very good for them with both main parties pandering to them and their interests. The scenario presented in your last paragraph (as unlikely as Boffy points out it is to come to pass) is a bad outcome for all the Russes; other, larger segments of the population might be the principal beneficiaries. It’s why he and others opposed Corbnyism and the possibility of the Overton Window moving leftwards with every fibre of their being.

Yes the Tories are currently a shitshow but Russ and co. want them punished so they get back to serving their interests, not disappear entirely. Also as France, Italy and the US show the right wing party going far right isn’t that much of a worry, their interests are still mostly served and it’s a huge stick to use to beat the left into falling in line behind the “moderate” liberal party. The Overton Window moving leftwards is the main thing they want to avoid.

Boffy said...

"The underlying political philosophy of all major parties is the same - neoliberalism."

Unfortunately, that is not true. Neoliberalism (or as it should be characterised conservative social-democracy) characterised Tories, Labour and Liberals in the 1950's, 60's, 70, and most of the 80's. In the late 80's, the petty-bourgeois base of the Tory Party began to seize control of it, leading to the civil war that has persisted inside it ever since, with the petty-bourgeois wing winning after 1997, despite the interlude of Cameron/May.

Thee are around 15 million voters comprised of that petty-bourgeois (based on the 5 million small businesses, self-employed), and a wider periphery, with similar ideology shared by lumpen elements, and backward sections of workers, particularly in the decayed urban industrial towns (Red Wall). That represents a sizeable core vote, for any electoral coalition, and was the basis of Brexit, and other reactionary ideas and bigotry. Its interests are not those of large scale capital (whose interests were and are reflected in Neoliberals, EU membership and so on).

Because it represents such a sizeable element of any potential electoral coalition, and because Starmer is fixated by such electoralism, he has also collapsed Blue Labour into that reactionary, petty-bourgeois, nationalist ideology. It is antagonistic to neoliberalism, which would be progressive compare to it, much as Lenin described in Russia in contrasting the progressive nature of the bourgeoisie to the reactionary nature of the petty-bourgeoisie. Only the Liberals, and to an extent the Greens, SNP, and Plaid are vestiges of Neoliberalism.

But, its precisely that, and the need for the dominant section of the ruling class to have a party that both represents its interests via a neoliberal agenda, and that has a chance of winning an election that creates the dynamic for a split in the Conservative Party between its petty-bourgeois Tory wing, and its Conservative Social-democratic wing, probably joining again (Cameron style), or simply swamping the Liberals, to form such an electoral coalition, seizing that ground that Blue Labour has vacated.

David said...

Zero Tory MPs would be a very reasonable ambition

Zoltan Jorovic said...

@Boffy. When you say "unfortunately, that is not true" do you mean that it would be better if it were true? Relax, it is.

I have read Dan Evans book on the Petty Bourgeoisie too, Boffy. While they may not be entirely neoliberal, they do mostly accept neoclassical dogma as the 'natural laws' of economics. They do tend to view markets as good, state as bad. They tend to support privatisation and deregulation, and they largely believe that unleashing entrepreneurial energy is the way to deliver a better life for them (and that they are held back by scroungers and shirkers molly-coddled by the woke public sector). None of this is not neoliberal.

Where they differ is they are against free trade and globalisation. So, antagonistic in a very limited sense. But that's OK, the neoliberals have simply shifted the emphasis away from collective agreements on trade, to one-on-one deals. Taking back control! What did you think that was all about? Free trade, but under a cloak of nationalism. It's globalism, but not as we know it, Boff.

Neoliberalism is not dead, or rather, it is dead, but lives on in zombie form. It wears a union flag cloak and croaks anti-immigrant, anti-foreigner, anti-public sector, anti-anyone weak or different slogans. But underneath, there is still the same drive to suck the lifeblood of prosperity and concentrate it at the top.

Or do you think Farage and company are driven by genuine concern and a desire to make life better for everyone? Sorry to disabuse you. They are using whatever crap appeals to manipulate, but the end is the same. Whoosh - the wealth is theirs.

The day that the Tories, Labour and the Lib Dems turn and say that utilities and any natural monopoly is best publicly owned, that regulation is necessary and markets can't function without it, that corporations have a responsibility to all stakeholders and to the country as a whole (and the planet), that the environment is not an optional extra to be cared for when we can 'afford' it but the foundation of everything, that the commons are a shared resource and must be managed and used sustainably to the benefit of all (including all land), that health, education, social care and cultural services are key to a flourishing and prosperous society and not nice-to-haves, and that fiscal rules are for the guidance of wise men and the obedience of fools - on that day, we can say that the main parties are no longer neoliberal.

It will be a cold day in Hell.

Boffy said...

To Zoltan, for the reasons Lenin set out, yes, I did mean that it would be better if the main parties were dominated by neoliberalism, which is the ideology of big-capital, rather than dominated by reactionary petty-bourgeois nationalism, which is antagonistic to it.

It was the neo-liberal governments of Bush/Obama, in the US and Brown in the UK that nationalised the banks in 2008 - along with other widespread intervention. It was the Tea Party predecessors of Trump, and their equivalents in the UK that opposed such state intervention, in the name of the petty-bourgeoisie.

Taking back control is the agenda of the reactionary petty-bourgeoisie, not of neoliberalism, and the interests of big capital. You seem to have defeated yourself there. The whole point is not about "free trade", but about globalisation, which you admit these parties have now ended - though I doubt reality will allow that, in the end.

Of course, I don't think Farage et al have a concern for everyone, what does that have to do with them having a concern for the petty-bourgeoisie, and pursuing its interests? As for the consequence of their positions still benefitting the rich that is no different to the reactionary petty-bourgeois policies of the Narodniks benefiting the Russian bourgeoisie, as Lenin described, despite the Narodnik intentions.

There is nothing in your last paragraph that is not neo-liberal. A lot of it has been the position of neo-liberal governments of the past, including those of Wilson and Heath. It is pretty much the neoliberal agenda of the EU, today, an agenda that British Tories and Labour have abandoned to pursue the reactionary petty-bourgeois programme of Brexitism.

Rodney said...

The Guardian's John Harris, another of the very left wing actually neoliberals, has taken up the line that the Tories being routed is bad because it'll prevent them from providing "effective opposition".

It's nestled in one of his regular "getting everything I wanted (2015-19) sucks" articles but shows cozy neoliberals are aware the possibility of the current two party system being disrupted is a threat to their interests. True to form he acknowledges no possibility this could benefit the left, stopping the Overton Window moving left remains his primary concern.