THERESA MAY HAS VIGOROUSLY worked to rebrand the Tory Party at their 2016 Conference. Why? The shock referendum No vote has revealed that a majority in this country are deeply unhappy with the political establishment in Britain today. The referendum result is an aftershock from the crash of 2008, which meant that living standards for most have stagnated or declined for a decade.
The Great Recession of 2008, and the resulting imposition of austerity, definitively discredited the ideology of neoliberalism, which had inspired both the Conservatives and New Labour from 1989 on. Both groups had utterly failed to articulate and defend the concerns of working people. In order to preserve the Tories’ future, May has dumped the out-of-touch millionaires of the Cameron-Osborne clique.
In her Conference speeches May continually referred to the problems of the working class. In doing so she has wrong-footed the New Labour ideologues, who were so afraid of mentioning ‘class’ that they talked instead of ‘hardworking families’.
So far all the pledges to improve the lot of workers have been hot air. We will watch the Brexit process attentively to make sure the government doesn’t try to water down or shred existing worker protection in EU legislation, as many Tories hoped to do. May has been talking the talk, but the Tory Party is unlikely to walk the walk.
What sort of Conservative Party has emerged from the Conference?
- May’s first attempt to stamp her identity on politics was to raise the issue of creating more grammar schools, of separating out ‘successes’ and a majority of ‘failures’ at the ripe old age of eleven.
- May’s stint at the Home Office was dominated by her obsession with migration. In 2013 she deployed ‘Go Home’ vans on our streets against illegal migrants, a clear incitement to racism.
- She was one of the main proponents of the Snoopers’ Charter, the Draft Communication Data Bill which would force internet service providers and mobile phone companies to keep records and hand them over to the government to trawl vast amounts of private data.
- For six years she sat in Cabinet in a government that was bleeding the NHS to death.
- There will be no change to proposed cuts in tax for the rich and big business.
- Austerity will continue, though Chancellor Philip Hammond has abandoned Osborne’s target to end the government deficit, since the government would never hit it anyway.
Though Thatcherism has been ‘dumped’, so far from capturing the middle ground, a May government represents a return to hard-line traditional social Conservatism and the support for a strong state as against the socially liberal, ideological free marketeers like Cameron. For the time being she has won. The Remain campaign kept their heads down at Conference. Cameron and Osborne were unpersoned, as in Orwell’s 1984. The government is on course for a hard Brexit, though of course it could all unravel.
Ed Miliband was pilloried by David Cameron in 2013 of “wanting to live in a Marxist universe” for modest proposals to rein in the profit-gouging big six energy companies. Now May is making similar noises.
John McDonnell was castigated for a reckless programme of ‘tax and spend’ for proposing to borrow at today’s exceptionally low interest rates to build up our infrastructure. Hammond now reluctantly suggests the same.
May’s rhetoric is important. She spoke at the Conference arguing that the state should intervene to “stand up for the weak and - up to the powerful”. This has alarmed free market Tories and, more important, the big business sponsors who bankroll the Party. If serious, she could be on a collision course with them. More likely, she will be forced to back down. The Tories have interpreted the Brexit vote as a referendum for drastic curbs on migration. There is no evidence for this assertion. May seems to be cuddling up to UKIP voters electorally, while UKIP in turn is trying to infiltrate the Tory Party.
Proposals to slim down overseas student quotas are an attempt to strangle one of our most successful export industries - higher education. Amber Rudd’s claim that “foreign workers are taking jobs British people could do” is one more attempt to fan the racist flames. This hard line against migration is at odds with the posturing to be on the side of the working class. Migrants are part of the working class and we defend them as such. They are our people. May’s ploy is really to turn worker against worker. That is a campaign she must not be allowed to win.
The old neoliberal consensus shared by New Labour and the Cameron Tories is discredited. The emergence of Corbynism within the Labour Party shows the changing political agenda. Theresa May has adapted to the new political reality quite cleverly. Of course her party’s claim to stand for the working class is utterly fraudulent. Labour is the party of the working class and proud of it. Jeremy Corbyn summed it up in his Labour Conference speech: “Who seriously believes that the Tories could ever stand up to the privileged few? They are the party of the privileged few, funded by the privileged few, for the benefit of the privileged few.”