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Editorial Don’t be fooled by Johnson’s laissez-faire vision for Britain

BORIS JOHNSON’S speech at today’s Conservative conference was in stark contrast to Keir Starmer’s lacklustre performance at the Labour conference last week.

As usual, Johnson was light on policy while employing florid language and extravagant phrases. But he has stolen a march on Labour by offering a vision of Britain that will resonate strongly in Labour’s traditional heartlands.

In promoting “levelling up” and the NHS as “the priority of the British people”; in criticising “the same old broken model with low wages, low growth, low skills and low productivity”; and in questioning “why people should feel they have to move away from their loved ones, or communities, to reach their potential”; Johnson has picked up on the language of the left.

Of course, what he intends working-class people to understand by this rhetoric is quite different from what he means.

In reality, wages go up when workers are able to bargain collectively, and are free to take industrial action to pursue their claims. But Johnson doesn’t want that — the subtext is supply and demand. His government certainly has no plans to repeal the anti-union laws.

His whole approach is laissez-faire. He blames “uncontrolled immigration” for the low wages, growth, skills and productivity, and claims that employers are going to change course simply because they can’t rely any longer on importing cheap labour. That’s not going to work. 

The history of broken industries in Britain is one of putting shareholders first at the expense of investment in wages, improved working conditions and technology. That was why coal, the railways and road transport had to be nationalised after the second world war.

The commercial road haulage industry today is in the same situation. There is a shortage of HGV drivers, not because there is a lack of EU workers, but because drivers have been leaving the industry much faster than younger ones are joining. And that is because of the poor wages and conditions.

The problem has been building up for years, but Johnson is washing his hands of it, passing the buck instead of taking decisive action to nationalise the industry.

The same applies to “levelling up.” Johnson cites the differences between and within regions, but his talk of “offering hope and opportunity to those areas that have felt left behind” (by Tory policies, by the way) and of “promoting opportunity with every tool we have” is simply not backed up by any serious regional development plans.

The eight freeports, which Johnson describes as “superfertilised loam,” may allow some businesses to “plant new jobs across the UK,” but at the risk of poorer working conditions in the ports and of job losses elsewhere.  

And the plans (not new) for road and rail improvements aren’t the same as job creation.

Johnson’s comments about the NHS beggar belief, given the lack of government funding and preparation before the pandemic, the handing over of “test and trace” to privateers, the contracting out of whole swathes of the organisation to private interests and the current plans for integrated care systems in Britain, with private companies having seats on the boards.

His claim that “capitalism ensured we had a vaccine [against Covid] in less than a year” belied the fact that it was public investment in research which made the vaccine possible. 

He is right that vaccination has saved more than 120,000 lives. But he ignored the fact that, due to his government’s policies, at least 137,000 have died — maybe as many as 200,000, if the truth be told.

Instead of mobilising the private financial resources already here, Johnson wants to make Britain “an even more attractive destination for foreign direct investment.” 

He talked positively about shareholders, companies, bankers and the “deep pools of liquidity” in the City of London. The labour movement needs a different set of priorities — one which mobilises that liquidity in the public interest. And it needs to assert a socialist counter-vision. 

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