Politics in Britain has finally become very interesting, writes Sara Peterson. Having lived through Blair, Brown, the Con-Dems, the Tory Government, there are actually some seismic shifts in electoral politics. It is actually almost worth suffering through the news on telly so as to keep track; people have actually starting to wake up and realise that they have been conned by the mainstream media and British politicians.
As people know, the General Election has led to a hung parliament, the Tories have been forced to do a confidence and supply agreement with the reactionary Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Interestingly, while saying that there are no magic money trees during the election against the policies in the Labour Party Manifesto, they somehow came up with a cool £1 billion to give to North Ireland to get the DUP on board.
In doing so, they thereby proved what anyone who understands basic economics was saying that the British government is not constrained in money creation as it has a sovereign currency – just in case it was not obvious when quantitative easing (QE) was used several times during George Osborne’s tenure as Chancellor of the Exchequer – really, as what is QE except for money creation? So there are magic money trees … governments and central banks, unlike you and me, can create money. They can spend beyond the revenue that they gain through taxes (creating a deficit) or print money (selling it as debt). Why can money be created to prop up banks and the stock market but not to create jobs and social services? People are starting to see beyond the fog of neoliberal economic ideology that austerity is a political choice not a necessary economic policy due to lack of different options. Ooops … let’s say that this contradiction was not one that they wanted to become obvious. But when need demands, the lies start emerging and the fog lifts and people start saying huh?!
Who’s the leader? Who has the power?
This election result and the confidence and supply deal with the DUP has led to a series of interesting contradictions for the Tories. Theresa May just said she will be Prime Minister for at least one year; either there is a lack of ambition there or she knows the handwriting is on the wall, but why does she think she will last another year? If things continue as they are, not even Brexit negotiations will be enough of an excuse to not call a Tory leadership election. Prominent Tories are already questioning whether she is capable of staying on for even one more year if she doesn’t shape up.
The Tory leaders would certain prefer a Tory leadership election, but, who can lead the Tory party who is not completely loathed (e.g., Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt, Iain Duncan Smith), completely living on another planet or in another century (ruling out such luminaries like Jacob Rees-Mogg, and probably Boris Johnson) or completely non-charismatic (Phillip Hammond)? Will the Tories go with Libertarian (a la those in the US, not real Libertarians) David Davis who is a social liberal? That may create problems with the DUP who are extremely reactionary on social issues. There is also the issue that obvious candidates for the post of leader like Amber Rudd (Hastings, with a 346 majority) and Justine Greening (Putney, majority 1,554) are barely holding onto their seats. George Osborne has left Parliament and is now the editor of the Evening Standard which he is using to attack Theresa May whenever he has the opportunity (he could barely contain his glee on Channel 5 election reporting, opposes Hard Brexit, and wants his project of austerity to continue). Certainly, most of Cameron’s minions are still in the party and in Parliament and they supported Remaining in the EU.
Let’s not forget the other group in the Westminster Parliament that is propping up the Tory government, the Scottish Tories who ran on a separate Manifesto than Theresa May as The Unionist Party. Mrs May need to keep them on board and they did not have keep the noxious policies that were in the Tory Party Manifesto. Ruth Davidson (the leader of the Scottish Conservatives) carries weight even though she is not in Westminster (she is in the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood) and that could put the kibosh on some policies; again, it didn’t stop them voting against eliminating the 1% public sector pay freeze amendment to the Queen’s speech introduced by Jeremy Corbyn. There are some prominent Tories calling for May to shape up or be removed.
May’s weakness has created opportunities to challenge the Hard Brexit advocated to bring UKIP members on board for the election.
The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has insisted that Britain stays in both the Customs Union and the Single Market until Britain leaves the EU to create a “transition period” due to worries about domestic investment, transfers of businesses outside of Britain and a 9% fall in new job creation. This will mean that free movement of people will continue and Britain’s ability to negotiate new trade deals may be endangered until they leave.
More and more Tories are arguing for a soft Brexit rather than the hard one that May’s government has been pursuing; among these is the current Chancellor of the Exchequer, Phillip Hammond. According to Stephen Swinford of The Telegraph, some members of the CBI are insisting that Britain stay in the Customs Union and Single Market indefinitely. May’s weakness has enabled business leaders (along with British Finance Capital, the CBI which represents larger business interests did not support Brexit) to push forward an agenda towards a softer Brexit which will not disentangle Britain from the EU in the manner that the hard Brexiteers in the Tory party wanted.
Certainly the Tories are hoping to avoid another General Election in the near future. The Labour Party (LP) actually holds an 8 point lead in public opinion polls, some of the top Tory people are just holding onto their seats, and it looks like if there is a General Election soon that LP will win. If they can hold off elections for as long as possible, there is a possibility that public opinion may shift. But all that is needed for them to lose the majority and a General Election to be forced is only a few of them becoming seriously ill and no longer able to continue in their jobs, some of them dying, corruption scandals and the Tories may have no choice.
Essentially, Theresa May is leader in name only with a bare majority which has led them to backtrack on policies that were in the Tory Manifesto; the Queen’s speech was rather threadbare this year (and this was not due to her wanting to watch her horses run in Royal Ascot) as the noxious policies (e.g., eliminating the Triple Lock pension, making the winter fuel alliance means tested, the Dementia Tax) appearing in the Tory Manifesto have had to be jettisoned leaving only the general statements at the end of the Manifesto for a number of reasons: 1) Their confidence and supply partners the DUP are not a Conservative party (that was the Ulster Unionist party that lost all its seats to the DUP) and while DUP members support Brexit, it will not countenance an attack like this on its voters; 2) These policies may have cost them a lot of voters in England and Wales as many of their voters are elderly people and 3) The public mood has changed and these specific austerity policies may be the final nail in the coffin as they simply cannot get the support in Parliament (their MPs do need to face election in the future).
May’s weakness is evident. Her proclamation on June 13th that austerity is over was overturned within hours by Michael Gove whom she had to bring back into government as Environment secretary) who said the cuts are not over. Gove was not the only leading Tory to say the party is not over, thereby elevating austerity to a principle rather than economic policies. Contradictions are wonderful things.
Moreover, this paper-thin “majority” has led to other interesting changes. In fact, the Tories had to change positions to protect the government. This can have positive consequences. This week an amendment to the Queen’s Speech was introduced by Stella Creasy (Labour, Walthamstow) addressing abortion coverage for women in North Ireland on the NHS. This motion came in response to a Supreme Court decision rejecting NHS funding for Northern Irish women travelling to Britain to get abortions on June 14th 2017 on the basis of respecting the “democratic decisions of the people of Northern Ireland.
The DUP clearly supported the ban on NHS coverage for Northern Irish women that meant that they need to pay travel expenses along with the costs of the abortion. While May (the great Feminist) may have been willing to continue to deny the bodily autonomy of North Irish women, it seems that 40 Tories were unwilling to do so and were going to vote in support of the early day motion ensuring that women from Northern Ireland could get abortions for free on NHS.
In this case, the 10 votes of the DUP become rather irrelevant and the Tory party changed its position and supported Creasy’s amendment which passed Parliament ensuring that Northern Irish women can now get abortions free at the point of demand on the NHS and as a result an important victory for which so many have been fighting for decades was secured on the 29th June 2017.
Hey Theresa May, how many people will you starve or kill today?
Given the shift in political opinion in the country evidenced by the vote at the General Election where rather than Brexit being the central focus of the election discussion, the LP Manifesto shifted the election debate to economic and social issues means the Tory party hold on power was extremely weakened. The impact of their economic policies on the lives of the majority of British people was brought to the fore and the shape of the future of Britain was the central point in the discussion. The fact that austerity is a political decision rather than a necessity, the fact that large numbers of people in Britain were suffering from these policies has become the lynchpin of the battle between the Tories and Labour.
What will happen to austerity? Do the Tories have the votes in Parliament to continue it or possibly deepen it? Probably not; we are beginning to see dents in the consensus around austerity among Tory MPs as they sense a change in public opinion. This change in public opinion comes down to the success of Corbyn’s LP Manifesto demonstrating that austerity is an ideological political decision not a great universal truth that the vast majority of people living in capitalist economies must endure. In fact, this is the victory for which so many have been fighting! Getting the Liberal Democrats on board to support austerity in the absence of consensus around austerity will probably spell the end of the LibDems even though they are a pro-austerity party; they need to be very careful supporting the Tories (they certainly would not support them on Brexit as they ran an anti-Brexit campaign) as their voters may not forgive them again crawling into bed with such a right-wing Tory party.
Oh dear, joining with the DUP presents some problems besides the obvious of working with a homophobic and anti-choice political party aligned to terrorists to stay in power. The DUP is not a fan of all austerity policies even though it voted with the Tories to defeat Jeremy Corbyn’s amendment to the Queen’s speech to end the cuts in emergency services and the 1% pay freeze for public sector workers with a majority of 14. We know that they do not support the elimination of the Triple Lock Pension scheme, means testing the Winter Fuel Allowance and the Dementia Tax, but they were not in the Queen’s Speech and the DUP did fulfil its supply and confidence obligations.
However the 1% public sector pay freeze put into place in 2013 following 2 years of a complete pay freeze (started in 2010) is becoming a problem for the Tories as suddenly some of their MPs are coming out saying the 1% public pay freeze may need to go. Certainly they have not grown a conscience and they most definitely could not have suddenly noticed that austerity is destroying people’s lives (this has been evident for quite some time), but there is that shift in public mood again that has become relevant which broke the consensus in mainstream British political parties that the only economic policy on offer is neoliberal and austerity based.
There is also the fact that inflation has been rising since the Brexit referendum vote and is at a 4 year high; this is clearly impacting purchasing power for British people. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation just published a report highlighting the situation relating to pay levels, benefit cuts and rising prices due to inflation:
“Two important developments in 2017 have worsened the incomes of people receiving benefits, relative to what is needed to meet minimum needs:
As a result of these changes, a couple with two children can meet only 59% of a minimum budget, down from 61% a year ago. For a lone parent with a newly-born child, the proportion has fallen more dramatically from 56% to 50% of MIS in a single year. As shown in Table 1, this means such a family has only half what they need today compared to nearly two thirds in 2010. For a single person out of work, the ‘safety net’ is now providing barely a third of income needs. On the other hand, for pensioners, benefit levels have kept pace with inflation and remain at a level approximately sufficient to cover minimum income requirements.”
Really, following the fantastic and correctly lauded job helping victims of two Terrorist attacks (Manchester and Borough Market near London Bridge) during the Election period by Ambulance workers, and hospital workers in the NHS, and the police, and firefighters and NHS workers desperately trying to save victims of the Grenfell fire, how do you justify this pay freeze?
“According to the study by Professor Alex Bryson at University College London and John Forth, a fellow at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research:
The hourly median wage figures were adjusted for inflation, based on 2015 prices and rounded to the nearest pound.”
As reported by The Guardian, according to the Report on Wage Growth undertaken by Alex Bryson (UCL) and John Forth (NIESR), there has been a 3% drop in median hourly earnings between 2005-2015 for workers in 32 public sector occupations whose salaries are set by the government on the advice of independent pay review bodies. It found median hourly pay fell by an even greater amount – 6% – during that period for workers across the board, as the recession of 2008 hit wages hardest in the private sector.
The confusion among Tory MPs as to what their party’s policy is on maintaining the 1% public sector pay freeze was fascinating; they went back and forth on whether or not they supported its elimination. You know that things are becoming interesting when Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson calls for the public sector pay freeze to be eliminated. Other Tories like Grant Schapps, Environment Secretary Michael Gove (yes, he who said that austerity should continue, contradicted himself, quelle surprise), Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, Education Secretary Justine Greening, and Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt have called for an end to the 1% freeze in pay for public sector workers; one may have felt that they were in a parallel universe.
In a truly humorous and pathetic moment, we get David Cameron stating that Tories that are calling for the end of the public sector pay freeze and opposing continuing austerity are “selfish” again raising that old canard that government spending money today will undermine the future state of the economy. There are times that you wish that he had actually taken a few more courses in economics; introductory Macroeconomics would help his understanding of the economy significantly.
“They seek to paint the supporters of sound finances as selfish or uncaring. The exact reverse is true. Giving up on sound finances isn’t being generous, it’s being selfish: spending money today that you may need tomorrow.”
Dave, Dave, Dave, repeating mantras only works if people believe what you are saying …
Grenfell Tower Catastrophe
One of the most interesting election results was the Labour Party win in Kensington where Emma Dent Coad won the seat by 20 votes (for comparison purposes, Americans can imagine Bernie Sanders winning Grosse Pointe Michigan) and given it is the area where the horrific Grenfell fire occurred which led to so many unnecessary deaths and which is becoming an horrific symbol of the whole of Tory austerity policy, they probably are reluctant to even risk a vote here.
This brings us to the Grenfell Tower in which a refurbished tower block (23 stories high) consisting of social housing burned to the ground so rapidly that it would have been impossible for firefighters to rescue people on the highest floors. Fire safety regulations are so undermined that there was only 1 fire stairway and no sprinklers; moreover the cladding that was put on the outside of the tower block to make it look prettier for the wealthy residents of Kensington was not fireproof; in fact the building burned from the outside in. Fireproofing the cladding would have cost only £293,000 more and adding sprinklers would have cost £200,000 pounds.
Tenants had been complaining about fire safety in the building to the private sector tower managers Kensington and Chelsea Tenants Management Organisation and their concerns were brushed aside and the tenants labelled troublemakers. The “stay put” policy in case of a fire certainly did not help chances of survival given that the fire was not contained to one flat but rather the tower went up in flames and then burned internally.
As is the case in many places where the poor live, extended family share apartments, subletting of flats may not be done legally (trying to keep control of the flats), those living in the building may not be in Britain legally, and it was Ramadan and people broke fast late in the British summer. The total numbers killed in the fire may never be known precisely, but the government says they will have a figure later in the year.
Grenfell was a death trap for those poor people that were living in social housing in Kensington; it is becoming the face of Tory austerity where regulations were undermined, where the bottom line set by the Tory controlled council in refurbishing the building was cost and its cosmetics and not people’s lives, the private sector managers ignored the needs and demands of tenants. If you want one thing that epitomises the lack of concern of the ruling classes in Britain for the needs of the working class, it is the Grenfell fire. Totally unnecessary deaths which could have been easily prevented if the real issue was providing safe and good homes in social housing for working class people.
The differences between the reactions of the leaders of the two main parties could not be starker. Jeremy Corbyn went down to talk to and comfort the survivors. Theresa May’s two visits to see the tower block did not include visiting with the victims; she talked to the rescue workers. Even George Bush went to talk to the victims of Hurricane Katrina. The Queen and Prince William then go down to talk to survivors of the catastrophe looking suitably emotionally moved. Only afterwards does Theresa May invite some survivors to Number 10 to talk to her. While some may see this as a good act of contrition, in reality what it is inviting people to her place of power; she cannot bring herself to go to the scene of the catastrophe and offer simple comfort to people suffering an horrible tragedy.
Her complete inability to empathise with victims appears almost sociopathic. It certainly does not help the Tory cause where they are insisting that they are not the nasty party. The Tory leaders of Kensington and Chelsea council resign in the wake of the fire, but they may (and should) be facing charges. In the wake of the Grenfell tower block fire, cladding is being examined all over the country to check that it is fire-proof, fire safety regulations are being reviewed, the heights of building are being re-examined. But, it has taken a catastrophe in which men, women and children have died unnecessarily to do things which should always be central to building homes for all people. It is doubtful that these fire safety failings would have been done on luxury housing. Austerity, privatisation, cost-cutting, deregulation, all hallmarks of neoliberal economic policy are responsible for this catastrophe and Tory culpability cannot be eluded.
It is almost every day that the impact of austerity makes the news, social care for elderly people has been eroded due to privatisation, the cleaning and support staff at Bart’s Health (comprising 4 hospitals in London) have gone on strike for 30 pence an hour increase in wages and are demanding additional hiring due to overwork, the end of zero hour contracts (the poor women had to walk out to keep their 10 minute tea break; remember the workers here are mostly middle aged women) following the privatisation of their contracts now managed by Serco rather than being NHS public sector workers, the treatment of disabled people in the UK has been condemned by the UN as a violation of their human rights, incomes of British working class people have been undermined and it is quite obvious that wage squeezes to keep profits up do not lead to investment ensuring good jobs with decent wages and conditions of work.
While we await the threatened arrival of Donald Trump to Britain on a state visit, we can be amused by his comments at the G20 (I certainly wish I could have read Theresa May’s mind when this was announced; she needs Trump in Britain like she needs a bullet in her head):
“We have been working on a trade deal which will be a very, very big deal a very powerful deal, great for both countries and I think we will have that done very, very quickly.”
He added: Prime Minister May and I have developed a very special relationship and I think trade will be a very big factor between our two countries.”
It seems someone forgot to tell him (or they told him and he didn’t understand or didn’t remember) that this cannot be done until Britain leaves the EU – those little details and all that – the thoughts of a big welcome for the orange Michelin man certainly brings a big smile to the faces of many on this island. I doubt that the Tory party leadership is as thrilled as the rest of us.
The people are not happy, the old lies are not working anymore, and it is only a matter of time that Prime Minister Mrs May will be history, it is questionable how long the Tories can maintain austerity, and we are living in very interesting times in Britain.
This article was originally published on the Anti-Capitalist Meetup on the DailyKos
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