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A mixture of opportunism and strategy

JAMES MEADWAY sizes up Johnson’s speech to Tory Party conference

THE Conservatives have wrapped up their annual conference in confident mood.

Well ahead in the polls and determinedly pushing ahead with a new-style Tory economics that shamelessly steals from the left, they are leaving a navel-gazing Labour Party adrift.

They are still the same party underneath the new clothes: Boris Johnson talked up high wages in the afternoon, but that morning his government pushed an estimated 4.4 million people further into poverty, snatching away the £20-a-week universal credit lifeline.

But by talking up higher wages, even goading employers to pay more, the natural party of British capitalism is playing with fire.

It’s not this government, with its feeble minimum wage increases, that is today driving up real wages in key parts of the economy.

It’s action by workers on the ground, turning the tables on employers for the first time in decades to win higher pay rises — whether organised or not.

Lorry drivers and barworkers are among those who have recently seen inflation-busting pay rises. It is the duty of the whole labour movement to now step up and demand those same pay increases for every worker.

What the Tories are doing is, as always with Johnson, a mixture of pure opportunism and deeper strategy.

The opportunism comes in part from Johnson’s utter slipperiness as a politician, switching with giddy ease from the pro-migration, socially liberal mayor of London to the anti-migration prime minister overseeing a “war on woke.” 

He now claims to have secretly opposed austerity all along.  

He is, today, undoubted master of the Conservative Party, ruthlessly imposing his will in Cabinet and barring his own ministers from policy announcements during conference.

The modern Conservative Party is an instrument very much formed in his image. 

But more fundamental than Johnson’s character and undoubted skills as a politician are the adjustments the Conservative Party is making, like ruling elites across the developed world, to the shifting tectonic plates of the global economy.

Johnson in his speech talked up the Aukus pact as a post-Brexit success story, with Britain now freed from Europe to “tilt” towards the “Indo-Pacific.” 

Unspoken here was the real challenge presented by the new economic superpower of China, and the fear it has sparked in the West.

But that fear is helping to drive changes in how the Western economies organise themselves.

Spurred on by the prospect of China becoming a genuine technological “peer competitor,” Joe Biden’s administration wants to invest $500 billion in the US’ semiconductor industry.

France and Germany have argued for a relaxtion of EU state aid rules to allow governments to work more closely with manufacturers, using subsidies and tax breaks to help support EU companies.

Here in Britain, the Tory government has nationalised the “strategic” steel producer, Sheffield Forgemasters, only a few years after it was refusing to even offer the company an emergency loan.

The other side of this are the attempts by major governments to contain the damage 200 years of unrestrained fossil fuel-burning has inflicted on the world.

As the costs of climate change and environmental destruction rise, from more frequent extreme weather to more frequent disease “crossovers” from animals to humans, governments across the world are attempting to turn towards green production.

These efforts will be on full display in the Cop26 conference in Glasgow next month.

Too slow everywhere, the planned investments are nonetheless shifting the balance of economic activity.

Everywhere, governments are turning steadily against the “neoliberal,” pro-free market rules that governed the world economy.

The Johnsonite Tory spin on this is to crowbar this into a story about “levelling up,” in which green jobs will be created across the country by government working hand-in-glove with major corporations.

The appointment of the deeply ideological Michael Gove to oversee “levelling up” in the Department for Communities is a crucial moment here, and it is likely Rishi Sunak will deliver more cash for Gove’s department in the Spending Review, due later this month.

This is interventionist Toryism, championed by the likes of Teesside Mayor Ben Houchen, of a kind we have not really seen in Britain since perhaps the heyday of prime minister Harold Macmillan in the 1950s.

It has borrowed shamelessly from Labour under Jeremy Corbyn, wanting to boost investment by government, moving Treasury staff out of London, and “rewriting the rules” of the Treasury to promote investment across the country — all policies under shadow chancellor John McDonnell. 

And the new Tory interventionism fits perfectly today with the economic forces reshaping our world.

Some of those forces are now playing out in supply shortages globally, as economies attempt to adjust to the easing of Covid-19.

Demand is running well ahead of supply in key commodities, pushing up prices — something exacerbated in Britain by Tory Brexit failures, but clearly not the result of Brexit alone. 

Labour grasps some of this, at least. Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves’s announcement of £28bn for a Green New Deal, beating the annual commitment made by Labour in 2019, was very welcome.

But the party too often seems listless, tagging along behind both the Tories and economic reality.

Its inability to respond to the fuel crisis with a clear demand for public ownership and control of failing fuel companies is a case in point.

Instead, opposition to the Tories’ plans to reshape the economy is likely to come from outside the Labour leadership.

Because today the most important commodity in capitalism — labour power — is in short supply across the economy.

Unions in this country have not had such a perfect opportunity to organise for decades.

And if the Tories are daft enough to talk up wage rises to beat inflation, the labour movement should be ready to call their bluff: after a decade of wage stagnation, after 18 months of pandemic misery, every worker in Britain deserves a pay rise — and every union should be out there organising and fighting for it.

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