A decade ago, British politics was gripped by public outcry over MPs’ expense claims. Politicians had charged everything to the public finances, from sink strainers to pornography and even moat cleaning — a shopping list that symbolized a contemptuous political class. All major parties were up to their necks in it.
The scandal partly gained such traction because it took place amid the 2008 financial crash, as governments shoveled public money into rescuing banks felled by their own high-risk gambling. Finding out that politicians had been living it up — and sending everyone else the bill — rubbed salt into the wound.
But if this moment pushed some people to the left, this wasn’t the conclusion that most drew. The Conservatives, at that time in opposition to Gordon Brown’s Labour government, seized the moment. In their account, spending was out of control — but this was as true of money for public services as it was of MPs’ expenses or bankers’ bonuses, and all a function of Labour’s mishandling of the economy. The Conservatives made a lasting meme out of the fundamental untruth that “Labour broke the economy with high spending.” Neoliberal assumptions were thus sheltered from the threat posed by the crash.
This tale is an old one. In the 1920s, faced with anger about austerity and war profiteering, the Conservatives successfully presented speculators and trade unionists as two sides of one parasitic coin. Over decades, the Right has waged a sustained war to misdirect economic worries into hatred of migrants and welfare claimants. The Conservatives’ Brexit wing succeeded in part by yoking their deregulatory vision to anger about regional inequality.
British conservatism is deft at defusing public anger and defending the status quo. The same threatens to happen again in 2022, even as prime minister Boris Johnson’s authority hangs by a thread.
Crisis? Whose Crisis?
The UK has suffered one of the world’s worst pandemic death tolls, in the context of long-term health infrastructure cuts, rampant crisis profiteering, and reams of evidence of egregious mismanagement — including from the prime minister’s own former chief adviser. We are also faced with a deep global energy crisis and multiple resource shortages. This week, the Bank of England warned households to expect the biggest fall in living standards since records began.
Meanwhile, Boris Johnson, once a Teflon politician to whom no muck could stick, has come to embody clueless callousness. Since November, a steady stream of stories has exposed the extent of “partygate” — a culture of seemingly constant alcohol-fueled revelry at his 10 Downing St address, ignoring social distancing rules even as people across Britain endured monthslong spells of virtual house arrest. Heartbreaking stories of people missing loved ones’ funerals while government officials partied have abounded. Unlike the expenses scandal, this is an essentially one-party affair. Labour and Scottish Nationalists have faced individual lockdown breach stories, but none on this scale. And there is no longer a Brexit-shaped distraction for the Conservatives to wave around.
For the first time since the high point of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership in summer 2017, Labour is enjoying a sustained poll lead. Keir Starmer’s party has added to the chorus of attacks on Johnson’s legitimacy and rightly pushed for his resignation. But it has failed to emulate the Conservative opposition’s success in 2008 in connecting the government’s woes to a broad political narrative — largely because Labour doesn’t really have one. People are already angry at Johnson. A political party’s role is more than to nod along with that anger and hope for the best; it also has to provide an explanation and an alternative.
Labour seems transfixed by the idea that it lost in 2019 because it was “too radical,” while overlooking the role of the doomed attempt to reverse the Brexit referendum and the internal war against then leader Corbyn. Starmer allies have therefore convinced themselves — in the face of a decade’s worth of evidence of political upheaval — that remaining reactive, sensible, and depoliticized is the way to win elections. Labour appears to believe it is replicating the success of Germany’s Olaf Scholz — a Social Democrat who became chancellor by promising continuity after Christian Democrat Angela Merkel’s retirement. But in truth, it is merely repeating its own performance from the early 2010s: attempting to win on competence and a vague sense of integrity alone. It’s yesterday’s politics.
British conservatism has been able to survive its crises also thanks to such Labour timidity. By echoing and reinforcing Conservative attacks on welfare claimants and immigrants throughout the 2000s, Labour helped create the conditions for widespread acceptance of the Conservative narrative of state overreach, and later popular support for Brexit. Faced with allegations of overspending, Labour essentially agreed by committing itself to harsh austerity.
This time, Labour has been closing off its own potential angles of attack. It could have demanded that the richest, or businesses that have benefited from huge furlough payouts, pick up the bill for pandemic management. Instead, it went so far as to oppose Conservative plans to raise corporate taxes. After two years of shrill talk about “leveling up” — a promise to increase spending in Britain’s most neglected regions — the Conservatives are likely most associated with this idea, while Labour’s commitments on rebuilding public services remain foggy.
The Conservatives remain wedded to market dogmas. They tell us it is impossible to “artificially” control energy prices in response to surging bills, and naturally oppose outright nationalization. Even if Labour sought only to be competent and efficient managers of public finances, they would have to point out that Conservative plans on rail and energy have embodied the worst of both worlds: a part nationalization that passes higher costs to ordinary people while allowing private profiteering to continue. But determined to shed the left-wing tag, Labour has also ruled out public ownership — despite its vast popularity, even among Conservative voters.
Partygate has now dragged on for months, and is widely considered to be heading toward an endgame, with a new wave of resignations from his office and seventeen no-confidence letters from Conservative MPs lodged at last count. Johnson could indeed be forced out, depending on developments within the Conservative Party. But length can be a sign of crisis abating as well as deepening. Johnson has had time to get a grip. Reports into the scandal have been delayed and truncated, while Johnson has sought new opportunities to move the conversation on, from ending COVID restrictions to bluster on Ukraine. So far evasion has not worked, yet Johnson traditionally has a remarkable ability to weather scandal, and it may turn out that reports of his demise have been exaggerated.
Alternatively, Johnson could simply be replaced in a palace coup, and scapegoated as individually to blame for every Conservative failure. Keir Starmer’s decontextualized focus on the prime minister’s personal character itself provides this major opening for Conservative strategists. However, both Johnson and his party will face far more meaningful pressure if the anger over partygate can be connected to the rising cost of living emergency.
Tackling the Social Crisis
The Bank of England’s prediction of a 2 percent fall in living standards doesn’t sound like much on paper. But in the real world it means swathes of people joining food bank queues, going hungry or cold at home, or pushed to the brink of homelessness. The UK already has around 14 million people in relative poverty and child poverty at record levels, has already undergone the longest sustained fall in real wages in a century, and is in the third year of an unprecedented public health emergency. The country looks set to enter a new phase of its post-crash social crisis — all against the backdrop of climate emergency, the global wealth gap, and profoundly unstable international politics.
Labour’s politics-as-usual approach is not fit for these times. But the wider left needs a rethink too. Since the last general election, the British left seems to have reverted much of the way to its parlous pre-2015 state. Extensive debate about whether to continue working within Starmer’s Labour — if he even lets us stay in the party — has not produced any particularly effective strategies. There are indeed certain successes to look to for inspiration, such as multiple industrial victories over “fire and rehire,” through which workers are employed by the same company on worse contracts. Some regional Labour leaders — even ones not associated with the Left — seem to be waking up to the scale of the social crisis, such as London mayor Sadiq Khan, who recently called for rent controls. Across the Channel, even France’s neoliberal government has capped energy bills and cut deep into energy giant EDF’s profits. Victories are possible — but the level of organization and coherence needs to improve at considerable pace and scale.
From public ownership to raising the minimum wage, Labour’s last election manifestos continue to provide a blueprint for redistributing wealth and power, addressing present crises, and building a society capable of facing the enormous challenges ahead. With its community organizing drive, scrapped under Starmer, it was even willing to engage with nonlegislative tactics to do so, attempting to actively engage people who have long been excluded by politics. That template can be revisited and adapted in light of the new crisis.
First, the spirit of mutual aid groups that flourished in the early stages of the pandemic should be recaptured. This means both organizing and direct solidarity with people who need it — whether providing aid, or defending those facing eviction (as community unions like ACORN do), or defending those unable to pay bills. This can also be tied to large-scale unionization drives, drawing on the resources and networks built during the Labour left’s heyday. Currently, such drives can respond to the Bank of England’s boss — himself on half a million a year — telling workers not to ask for pay raises, infuriating even right-wing dailies.
At the same time, local solidarity campaigns can be generalized into national demands for energy bill cuts and a right to food — such as Labour MP Ian Byrne has led calls for — as the first step in a people’s bailout package. If asked how to fund it, the response is obvious: public ownership and taxing the rich (the number of billionaires in the UK has hit record highs during the pandemic). Protests have already been called, correctly leading with a demand to cut energy bills by means of public ownership, as opposed to the overused tactic of opening with an abstract call for public ownership. These should be built, extended, and linked to the call for Johnson’s resignation. Creative tactics such as footballer Marcus Rashford’s free school meals campaign or food campaigner Jack Monroe’s new price index should be bolstered by a relentless strategic focus from the wider movement on a handful of gains that would make the most immediate difference to people who are hardest hit. Such focus must connect activity at the community, industrial, political, and parliamentary levels simultaneously. Accelerating such a push should be something that all leftists and progressives can agree is an urgent priority.
This is how the anger over partygate can be channeled into a politically productive response. Boris Johnson’s open disregard for rules meant to keep us safe is the tip of the iceberg of the contempt his party has shown for us ever since it gained office in 2010. Conservatives have set about destroying the UK’s social safety net, and handing out huge chunks of what remains to parasitic, bungling outsourcing giants that rely on public money to do business. Their deliberate erosion of our National Health Service has helped to leave us at the mercy of the pandemic. They have presided over a scale of poverty and misery that should be literally impossible in one of the world’s richest economies. To avoid taking responsibility, they are once again resorting to misdirection and divide and rule, from stoking racism against people seeking safety in the Channel to defending slave-trader statues. And now we are told that we have no choice but to endure fuel bill hikes while energy profiteers rake it in, as part of yet another round of belt-tightening and misery. But perhaps this time, enough is enough.