Seb Cooke assesses the changes and continuities in Tory policy following Theresa May’s first conference as leader, and what this means for the left.
So there we have it. The Tory leadership’s response to the widely acknowledged push back against 40 years of neoliberal politics is to don a Trumpian mask. It is to bash immigrants and accuse anyone who doesn’t join in of being part of a snobbish elite. It is to promise an end to laissez faire capitalism in favour of a more interventionist approach, supposedly to help those who have been ‘left behind’ but with a heavy dose of old-school Tory ideology.
In doing so, Theresa May has picked a fight on a number of fronts, including with the traditional allies of Conservatism in big business but also with teachers, doctors and most notably with migrant workers and their co-workers and friends. A central problem for the new prime minister is that her policy doesn’t match her rhetoric. Taking on the elites or intervening to ‘do good things’ is all well and good if you actually do those things, otherwise you soon get found out. We have to assume that May is aware of this and has thus sought to dramatically change the face and tone of government into something that represents a clear break from every administration since the 1970s. This is part of the reason why she sacked so many figures associated with the Bullingdon Club excess of David Cameron. How could she stand up and have a pop at the elites with George Osborne by her side? It would make even less sense than it does now.
But even with this huge shift, there are material factors that will make it hard for people to believe that the Tories have actually changed. Despite ditching the spending targets, Philip Hammond is sticking to the actual austerity policies in the here and now, including huge cuts to council funding that will have a visible impact on people’s lives and where they live.
It means more pools and libraries closing, less money for schools, parks being sold off and services being shut down. Tied to this is the ongoing public sector pay freeze (affecting more than just council workers) which has seen wages fall against inflation and workers finding themselves thousands of pounds worse off as a result. At the same time, there appears to be no let up in the vast increase of wealth at the top. Also, the commitment to force the NHS to cut £20 billion still stands. The bedroom tax still stands, as does the punitive welfare system.
These are undeniably factors that are driving the discontent that has informed Theresa May’s approach, but which will still persists under her watch. After all, it’s easy to rail against the system from the right when you appear to stand outside it like Donald Trump. It’s a lot harder when you are heading it up. Then there are Grammar schools where May has fumbled in making it her first flagship policy. How do you square a line against the sneering elite with the introduction of an education system that is set up to develop and nurture an elite layer of society? The general secretary of the NUT, Kevin Courtney, has been demolishing the government’s education policy over the last few weeks and days. If the teachers fight back (and teaching assistants follow in the footsteps of their colleagues in Durham and do the same) it will cause big problems for the government.
In other words, there are very real contradictions in what Theresa May is trying to do. Having said this, the ideological and political shift is major. The glue that May hopes will hold all of this together has been the overriding theme of the conference: immigration. Government departments have been lining up to declare war on foreign workers and students in a terrifying manner. They hope that this increase in anti-
immigrant policy and racist rhetoric will paper over the visible cracks elsewhere and wrong-foot Labour. The argument that May uses focuses on the idea that the white working class feel shat on because of huge inequality and immigration. It is an acknowledgment that class is back at the heart of British politics, but a vicious attempt to divide that working class.
Brexit has changed the political landscape in that it has delivered a huge hammer blow to neoliberalism and put class on the the agenda. Where this upheaval ends up depends on how we respond. This means that the only viable rebuttal to May is the one that Jeremy Corbyn laid out last week: a clear defence of migrant workers based around a class perspective that says it is the government and bosses who are responsible for the lack of jobs, housing etc, and makes the case for working class unity as a necessary prerequisite for collective progress. It is such a strong response that anyone who claims to be outraged by May but who then attacks Corbyn cannot be serious about pushing her bile back. However, the Ed Miliband-era tweet that was sent out from the Labour press team, having a go at the Tories for not sticking to their plans to cut immigration, shows how hard the right are fighting back. So Corbyn is clearly a (if not the) key figure in the fight over immigration, but the vehicle taking us forward in this respect is not the Labour party itself. Instead, surely what we need is a campaign to defend migrants that has the question of class front and centre.
This can’t, then, be based around the liberal response that talks about immigration mainly in the context of assisting the global economy and providing labour to international corporations. Such an approach talks about the economy as if it’s functioning well for most people when clearly it’s not. It leaves us open to the line of attack from Theresa May that says a defence of immigration is the preserve of an out of touch elite. Neither can we simply say that the Tories rhetoric is ‘divisive’ and end the argument there. We have to lay out exactly why such division is a barrier to people trying to collectively better their lives.
We have to fight around a left-wing, class based programme for defending migrants as was expressed by Corbyn last week. This approach was also the basis for the ‘I am an immigrant’ adverts that appeared last year. This crowd-funded PR campaign made the case for migrant workers as an essential part of the working class whose input we not only rely onbut who we also have a self interest in showing unity with. Equally, if we look at the brilliant Focus E15 campaign that fought back over housing in Newham, we see a campaign that took on an issue that is frequently used to attack immigrants but which was instead based around the idea of class solidarity against the real enemy: government and landlords. There is also an anti racist militancy that has been on display in countless anti-facist demonstrations, BLM, mobilisations around refugees, the Movement for Justice protests around Yarl’s Wood and the defend migrants march in London immediately after the referendum.
We now have to broaden our fight to wage an ideological battler in wider society over the question of immigration. It’s this left wing approach that we should assert in these different times we find ourselves in. It is an approach that sees its audience not just among those people who are already won tothe idea of defending migrants, but also to those people who have taken on board right-wing ideology that immigration is a burden on our society. By acknowledging, for example, the very real lack of decent affordable housing and expressing solidarity with those who are fighting against this, we naturally come into conflict over immigration. This is my experience of working with people affected by the bedroom tax in South Wales. Immigration comes up time and again, but it’s always found to be standing on very shaky ideological ground when people’s real concern, housing or jobs, is addressed in tandem with a defence of migrants. We may not win first time, but we cannot shy away from these arguments and must fight upon a terrain where anti-immigration sentiment is strong but is also mixed in with genuine class grievances. If we avoid the arguments, or dismiss those sections of the working class as beyond reproach (as Hillary Clinton does with Trump supporters) we push the door even wider for racism to walk through.
It is also going to be essential to fight for the involvement of the major organs of the working class: trade unions. This is not based on an abstract appeal to their moral compassion, the awful statement produced by the TUC in response to May’s speech shows how flawed that strategy would be. Instead, it can be forced from below by trade unionists that see their colleagues under attackbut also from migrant workers themselves, fighting back over punishing and racist immigration checks and controls. In this respect, making demands on trade union leaders to launch campaigns in defence of migrant workers can be hugely important. There are two areas that have been thrown up by the Tory conference where non-migrant and migrant workers and students can come together to fight back: higher education and health. This could of course be a catalyst for a wider fightback against Amber Rudd’s proposals for companies to list foreign workers.
It is feasible that on the back of a major victory over defeating the coup against Corbyn, we cannot only mount a left wing defence of immigrants, but also come together as a class to pose solutions to very real problems that May’s government has no answer to. What we do next is very important.