Liz Truss becomes prime minister at a time of multiple economic and social crises, in the face of a rising level of strikes and industrial action, and with a bitterly divided Tory party behind her. rs21 members look at some of the battles she will face and how best to resist the Tories.
Liz Truss is now leader of the Tory party and about to become Prime Minister – but she has no answers to the crises that affects almost every part of life in Britain.
Two-thirds of food banks say they will run out of food this winter and have to turn people away. Over six million people are on NHS waiting lists, and if you have a medical emergency like a stroke, on average in England an ambulance will take just under an hour to arrive – the target time is 18 minutes.
Water companies discharged raw sewage into English waterways more than 370,000 times in 2021. Only one in three London to Manchester trains is scheduled to run. Widespread drought is only one example of the climate crisis.
As people despair for the future, Truss and Sunak have spent the summer demonstrating that addressing this is not a priority for them. On the cost of living, Truss’s vaunted plans to cut income tax, National Insurance and VAT offer very little to those most in need. People on low pay don’t pay much income tax or NI to start with, and food is zero-rated for VAT.
But for all of Truss’ rhetoric about market forces, it now seems like her government will be forced into a drastic u-turn to avoid an explosion of anger over fuel costs. Tory sources are busily leaking plans for a freeze on energy prices, though with no details about how this might work, and Robert Peston is already warning of how this might cost us in years to come. But even if the emergency measures manage to avert the immediate energy price crisis, there are plenty of other social and economic fault-lines that the new government faces.
The NHS is on its knees, yet there is no sign of any Truss policy on health. Rents are outstripping inflation while millions of tenants lack basic security, but housing also went unmentioned during the leadership competition. As for the climate, Truss wants to increase gas drilling, and possibly start fracking, when we need to replace fossil fuels with renewables. Add in to those social care, education, Northern Ireland, transport, Scotland, the continuing fall-out from Brexit. the near-certainty of a new Covid surge later this year… Crisis? Which crisis?
To consolidate her power, Truss can be expected to launch a series of attacks on the Tories’ favourite targets. Expect more laws to make it harder to strike. Expect more attacks on migrants and the return of the vile scheme to deport refugees to Rwanda. Expect more culture wars and attacks on trans people, especially with the transphobic Suella Braverman lined up for Home Secretary.
Truss has marketed herself to Tory members as a hard-right leader, yet she is a pound shop Thatcher. Thatcher built a consensus behind her neoconservative policies that included big business, middle-class Tory voters and even some workers. Currently, business paper the Financial Times highlights that the Tories have no answers on major issues for British capitalism such as healthcare and housing. Many middle-class people are affected by spiralling energy bills. Over half of Tory voters (as opposed to members) now support renationalising energy companies.
Truss is also in a far weaker position than Johnson. She becomes PM with none of Johnson’s voter appeal, low cunning or kudos from having got Brexit done, and as Labour enjoys a double-digit poll lead. In the initial ballot of Tory MPs, Truss was the first preference of only one in seven of them, and in the final ballot she was still the first choice of fewer than one in three. She didn’t even get a majority of Tory party members voting for her, with one in six not voting. And she leads a Tory parliamentary party with no consensus on strategy – tax cuts and the free market won’t deliver the ‘levelling up’ agenda on which red wall Tory MPs rely to hold onto their seats.
One great advantage for the new administration, of course, is the inadequate opposition provided by Starmer’s Labour Party. Starmer’s general strategy has long been to demonstrate to voters that he’s not Corbyn, and to the powers that be that he’s a safe pair of hands who can be trusted to run the British state. His failure to relate to the desperation millions feel has lost Labour 90,000 members – over a sixth of the membership – in the last year.
Even a centrist like Andy Burnham has spoken at an Enough is Enough rally and criticised Starmer’s ban on shadow cabinet members attending picket lines. When there was talk in August of Unite – Britain’s second-biggest union – disaffiliating from Labour, Starmer allies were quoted as responding that ‘Our polling would probably skyrocket overnight’. We’re looking not just at right-wing politics, but remarkable incompetence.
Thankfully, Truss faces much more significant opposition from strikes such as those on the rail and in the post, and from campaigns like Don’t Pay and Enough is Enough. The RMT and CWU strikes have been solid, and trade union leaders interviewed in the media have inspired millions. A quick glance at the Unite website shows that strikes have won double-digit pay rises in a growing list of local private sector workplaces. When it comes to national strikes, however, where the government holds the purse strings, victory will not be easy. Truss will be determined to face down the unions rather than be defeated in her first months in office. Workers will very likely need to push for escalation from the current pattern of one- and two-day strikes, and for greater coordination, to maximise pressure on the government.
Don’t Pay has won pledges so far from almost 160,000 people to cancel their direct debits on 1 October if fuel prices aren’t reduced. It’s a huge achievement – the grassroots campaign has got the idea of not paying on to the public agenda, making clear the Tories face a serious revolt and pressuring them to act.
Enough is Enough, launched by the leaderships of several smaller unions, has staged inspiring rallies and quickly developed a huge mailing list. Fliers at the London event promised local branches, picket line solidarity and there were hints from the stage of civil disobedience. There is potential for an enormous level of activism here, as shown by the overflow meeting outside Manchester Cathedral which recalled the thousands who gathered several years ago in the same place to hear Corbyn speak. But one of the downsides of Corbynism was that it often involved waiting for Corbyn to deliver from above, rather than inspiring people to take action for themselves. Local branches, wider involvement and a stress on members’ activity can help turn the potential of Enough is Enough into a reality.
The next big actions look like the Enough is Enough regional and local events on 1 October, the day that energy bills are due to go up, the We All Want To Just Stop Oil protest the same day in London, which links cost of living strains to the climate emergency, and the People’s Assembly demonstration outside the Tory party conference in Birmingham the following day. But there will be many protests in the months to come. Prepare to get out on the streets and put Truss under pressure from today onwards.