In normal years, the Tory Party conference would be an opportunity for the party’s leaders to rally the troops. But with deep divisions opening up within the Tories over the question of Europe, this year’s conference was notable for how little of substance was actually said as May sought to smooth over the rifts within her party.
The last week has seen the annual affair of the Tory Party conference. In normal years, such an event would be an opportunity for Tory leaders to rally the troops. But with deep divisions opening up within the Tories over the question of Europe, this year’s conference was notable for how little of substance was actually said as May sought to smooth over the rifts within her party.
Although the annual Tory Party conference is classified as being a party conference, there is little to no actual conferring with the party itself during the event. Instead the great and the obscure gather together to decide and discuss nothing, but rather to listen (or sleep along to) an assortment of speeches and presentations from the party chiefs. No wonder that this is the model which Tony Blair used when “reforming” Labour Party conference in the late 1990s.
Usually the platform speakers make some effort to whip up the arch-right elements who traditionally dominate the conference floor, but this year they did not seem keen to do even that. Most of the speeches had little to no content and nothing much to announce – with one interesting exception (which will be dealt with below).
This reflects the fact that there are still deep divisions inside the Tory Party: over Europe and Brexit; grammar schools; the crisis in the NHS; and, of course, the economy.
Theresa May’s leadership speech on the Wednesday also seemed determined to avoid any actual proposals. Instead she launched into a surreal presentation about how the Tories were now going to be the party of the poor, standing up to big business and clamping down on tax dodging, supporting workers for a “fairer Britain”, and so on. The conference was asked to “remember the good that government can do”. Support for the NHS and defence of workers rights were even mentioned, despite the fact that the Tories are currently attacking the NHS and the trade unions.
This was all part of a call to seize the so-called “centre ground”. Of course, any connection between May’s rhetoric and reality is purely accidental. No wonder most of the Tory MPs on the conference floor seemed to be laughing.
It is possible that May’s speech was an attempt to win over some of the Blairite Labour MPs to “cross the floor”. More likely, it is a strategy intended to draw a line between the new Tory Prime Minister and the failed and hated leadership of Cameron and Osborne, who came to embody the idea of the Tories as a government “of the rich, by the rich, for the rich”.
Channel 4 quickly sent reporters out to a particularly deprived part of Britain to ask people if they thought the Tories could be a party for workers, only to be met with bemusement. In this upside-down world of establishment politics, we have the Tory Theresa May attacking unfair capitalism, whereas Labour’s Tom Watson is praising capitalism and big business as being good. A week is indeed a long time in politics.
In the middle of all the lovey-dovey stuff, May was careful to put the responsibility for the damage caused by the capitalist crisis at the feet of low-paid migrants. So much for getting rid of the “nasty party” tag.
Many have speculated that May is simply targeting UKIP, who are clearly undergoing their own internal problems of their own, and Nigel Farage has already commented that May’s speech simply repeated much of what he has been saying in recent months.
Earlier in the week it was announced that firms will have to ‘list’ foreign workers – a proposal that is as sinister as it sounds. For the Tories, Brexit has been turned into an anti-migrant vote.
Jeremy Corbyn was quick to highlight this xenophobic targeting of migrants by the Tories; yet it is worth reminding ourselves that some of these feelings were also shamefully expressed last week by “moderate” Labour MPs. The whole establishment now seems determined to scapegoat migrants, rather than blaming the capitalist system – the real cause of the problems facing workers today.
In the middle of all the bland nothingness which spread across the conference, there was one speech of importance – not for what was said, but for what it meant.
The new Chancellor, Philip Hammond, announced on Monday that the doomed attempt to “balance the books” and get rid of the deficit was to be abandoned “for now” and that he will “set out a new plan, for the new circumstances the UK faces”.
Given that the main architect of austerity, George Osborne, had clearly missed every one of his targets by a mile – and had ended up borrowing more than any previous Labour government – it was obvious that the new Tory leadership would try and dig themselves out of the hole that Osborne had got them into (preferably leaving Osborne behind stuck in it).
Nearly a year-and-a-half ago, Osborne was predicting that the sun would soon be shining on us all and that the good times would be here again. But as soon as the 2015 general election was over, he had to start revising his estimates downwards.
The slowdown in the global economy, combined with the turbulence of Brexit, has now put to bed all these previously optimistic forecasts. When Hammond stated that if circumstances change then you need to change with them, therefore, he was merely acknowledging the grim prospects now facing the UK and world economy.
“We are all Keynesians now”
The debate inside the corridors of power in the years following the economic crash has been about whether to cut state expenditure and public debt, or pump money into the economy like mad to stave off possible recession. The capitalist class, clearly, are stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Across the world, the ruling class are waking up to the fact that despite years of austerity, near-zero interest rates, and round after round of quantitative easing, the system continues to stagnate. Hence the openness on the part of Hammond and the Tories to the possibility of turning towards Keynesian measures to try and stimulate the economy.
With his conference speech, therefore, Hammond has switched from doomed-plan one to doomed-plan two, adopting a watered-down version of Keynesianism with a Tory touch. According to the BBC he will;
- Drop attempts to eliminate the so-called deficit by 2020.
- Replace any EU funding for projects lost due to Brexit.
- Provide £320m for technological innovation.
- Boost the ‘Midlands Engine‘ (similar to George Osborne’s ‘Northern Powerhouse‘).
- Create a £3bn ‘homebuilders’ fund’ and provide £2bn to speed-up construction on public land.
Some of this is flannel, but clearly a loosening of the purse strings is intended. The irony here is that the Blairites – ardent public spending cutters – now find themselves to the right of the Tories.
Of course, workers need to be very clear that this is not an end to austerity. Indeed, just as cuts to workers living standards, public services etc. took place before 2008-9, so we should be clear that for the vast majority, austerity will continue unchanged and there will be further cuts to come.
Hammond’s plan represents a benefit payout not for the millions but for the millionaires, aimed at shoring up the crumbling edifice of British capitalism. In the face of the economic tsunami to come, Hammond is getting ready to give the umbrellas out to the 1%.
Given the poor state of British industry – it’s lack of investment, low productivity, short-termism, reliance on low pay and “flexible” working, etc. – Hammond is stuck facing a situation where Britain has gone from being the workshop of the world to being the workhouse of the world.
Kick out the Tories! Kick out capitalism!
Labour has already commented that much of what Hammond has now promised out of desperation was promised by John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, only last week.
There is a clear warning here. Just as the previous establishment choice of hard austerity (under Cameron and Osborne) or austerity with a smile (under Brown and Miliband) provided no choice for the working class, so the new choice of Tory Keynesianism or Labour Keynesianism will also be no real choice for workers and youth.
As one commentator from The Canary explained in her Labour conference report: far from supporting “centre ground” politics,
“…as multiple studies have shown, people want an actual opposition. A 2013 YouGov study warned the party that the public was far to its left on a number of issues, and felt abandoned. A University of Oxford study after the (2015) election, meanwhile, revealed that Labour’s failure to counter the Conservative narrative (too much welfare, too much public spending) on the root causes of the financial crisis – which they could only have done by challenging austerity, the financial services sector, and neoclassical economics (as Corbyn’s team have) – was the prime reason for their failure.”
Labour needs to make a clear break from the new Keynesian consensus and offer workers the only option that can provide a real alternative and solve the problems still facing us: socialist policies that challenge this rotten system.
Keynesian tinkering with the system will not work, whether it is done by two-faced Tories or well-meaning Labour under Corbyn. A clear socialist programme – based on nationalisation of the banks and the major monopolies, under workers control and management, and as part of a democratic plan of production to benefit the 99%, not the billionaires – is the only way forward.