Just two months after the general election the simmering divisions within the Tory party that were quieted by the outcome of the December contest, bubbled back to the surface with Sajid Javid’s dramatic resignation as chancellor on February 13.
The immediate cause was Boris Johnson’s ultimatum that Javid’s advisors be sacked, echoing the conflict between Margaret Thatcher and Nigel Lawson, who resigned as chancellor in October 1989 just a year before her own mortal wounding by the mass anti-poll tax non-payment movement (in which the Socialist Party’s predecessor, Militant, played a critical role).
Javid’s resignation letter demanded that the “credibility” of the Treasury be maintained, a nod to the global money markets that he previously worked in.
It also hinted at the Tory clashes over whether their manifesto commitment to balance the day-to-day budget by 2022-23 can be achieved – faced with a projected annual deficit of £12bn by then, even on present trends – without further austerity measures or tax rises.
Javid had no wish to share the fate of both of his predecessors George Osborne and Philip Hammond, who had been forced by backbench revolts to withdraw even modest tax increases – Osborne’s 2012 pasty tax ‘omnishambles’ and Hammond’s national insurance U-turn in 2017.
But instead he has ended up as the shortest-serving chancellor, for reasons other than death, since Neville Chamberlain in 1924.
More profoundly, the renewed Tory tensions are the parliamentary reflection of the nervousness of the ruling class as they prepare for the biggest shake-up in British capitalism’s international relations since the second world war, with negotiations about to start on recasting the 47-year old economic, legal-political and military-diplomatic ties with the European Union.
The EU decision promptly after ‘Brexit day’ to add the Cayman Islands, a British overseas territory, to its blacklist of aggressive tax avoiders – something that the UK had been able to consistently veto before – gave a pointer to what lies ahead.
The early spats within the government only confirms what Socialism Today wrote in last month’s editorial that, despite the general election result, “the British capitalist class still looks upon 2020 with trepidation”.
They are not able, we argued, “to trust Johnson to reliably deal” with the problems ahead “in their best interests”.
Making sure there is a dependable ‘second XI’ of capitalist political representatives in place if it becomes required is ever more vital.
Sorting out the second XI
The ruling class have been spooked by the experience of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party.
Corbyn’s win in 2015 threatened the historic victory they had achieved with the qualitative transformation of the Labour Party into Tony Blair’s capitalist New Labour.
This was both an ideological and organisational transmutation.
The socialist Clause Four was replaced with a paean to the “enterprise of the market”, while the channels for the working class to challenge pro-capitalist leaders, particularly through the trade unions, were systematically dismantled.
The new political order established, lasting over two decades, alongside and linked to the failure of the trade union leaders to resist, achieved real material gains for the capitalists.
Wages’ share of gross domestic product in 1980, for example, stood at 61%, compared to below 55% today – an annual transfer from the working class of £130 billion or so.
The surge to Labour in the 2017 general election, in particular, filled the ruling class with fear.
It was a glimpse of the mass enthusiasm and confidence that would have been unleashed if a Corbyn-led government had come to power, potentially pushing it to go even further than it intended against the capitalists’ interests.
‘Corbynism’ embodied the possibility for socialist, working class political representation to be re-asserted. The capitalists are determined that the opportunities provided by December’s election outcome to exorcise this dread prospect are fully seized.
Thus it was not for reasons of solicitous concern, for example, that the millionaire ex-Tory deputy chair Lord Ashcroft produced his recent report, Diagnosis of Defeat: Labour’s Turn To Smell the Coffee.
Based on online interviews with 10,000 adults, weighted towards previous Labour voters, Ashcroft concluded that an “outdated and excessively left-wing worldview” – amongst other failings – was responsible for December’s result.
But when the options for the interviewees were ‘Jeremy Corbyn was not an appealing leader’, ‘Labour’s promises were not believable’ and so on, versus statements on the lines of ‘many voters believed Conservative lies’ and ‘many have bigoted views’, it was not surprising that they declined to denounce themselves!
In fact the Diagnosis of Defeat ‘research’ – conducted in January – contradicted the findings of the generally more accurate exit polls, including the December Ashcroft poll that showed 72% of those who had voted Conservative on the day they were spoken to named ‘getting Brexit done’ as the most important reason for their decision.
But such details were not Ashcroft’s concern. As he explained in the report’s introduction, anticipating suspicions of his motives, “the country needs a strong opposition… at its best, the Labour Party has been a great force for decency”.
He goes on to say, completely disinterestedly of course: “We need it to reclaim that role”.
Resisting the counter-revolution
The heavy lifting in the job of purging Corbynism, however, cannot be done by its open representatives like Ashcroft, nor even the ultra-Blairites within the Labour Party such as Jess Phillips and deputy Labour leader candidate Ian Murray, who both hailed the Ashcroft report as ‘telling the hard truth’.
Phillips was forced to abandon her leadership bid for lack of support and, while Murray is on the ballot paper, he only made it on the basis of 41 nominations – out of the 60 he gathered – from Scottish Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs).
This again shows that the Scottish Labour Party is a Blairite redoubt and confirms the argument made in last month’s Socialism Today that the issue of fighting for a new mass party of the working class is immediately posed in Scotland.
But Murray is not the all-UK standard-bearer for capitalist interests in the Labour leadership and deputy races.
Instead that role has fallen to Keir Starmer, who topped the second phase of the contest with 374 CLP nominations plus five right wing-led unions including the public sector union UNISON and the retail workers’ USDAW.
Rebecca Long-Bailey, the candidate closest to Corbyn, had 164 CLP nominations, plus Unite the Union and four others.
Significantly, for the deputy contest, two-thirds of the 364 CLPs nominating Angela Rayner also nominated Starmer – with just one-sixth following the Momentum-backed endorsement of Long-Bailey and Rayner – showing the role she will play if Long-Bailey is elected on April 4.
Because Jeremy Corbyn failed to consolidate the insurgency set in motion in 2015 by politically and organisationally transforming Labour into a mass socialist workers’ party, a Starmer leadership will not have to change much in order to secure the capitalists’ interests within the party.
Blair’s 1995 Clause Four remains and the sterilised New Labour structures have also been left largely untouched. That is why Starmer can benignly genuflect to both Momentum as well as “people who might self-identify as Blairites” (The Guardian, 18 December).
But a Starmer leadership will signify a counter-revolution, a victory for the ruling class.
What is also clear is that even if the most left-wing slate of Rebecca Long-Bailey and Richard Burgon for deputy (78 CLP nominations) wins in April, a spring conference of all the forces which have backed Corbyn, in the trade unions and socialists inside and outside the Labour Party – including the Socialist Party – must be urgently convened.
With Momentum not fit for purpose the left trade unions must take the lead, with Unite most powerfully placed and resistant to the Blairites, as Peter Taaffe explains in his review in this edition of Socialism Today of the new book by Len McCluskey, the union’s general secretary.
December was a serious defeat for the workers’ movement, although the narrative of ‘Corbynism equals electoral catastrophe’ is totally false (see our review of the recent book, Electoral Shocks, also in this edition).
Drawing up a balance sheet of the past four-and-a-half years’ experience, and what will need to be done now to secure socialist working class political representation in the post-Corbyn era, is a pressing task for every labour movement militant, young climate protester, and working class community or social movement activist.