We’re celebrating as Truss collapses, but we can’t let markets dictate who heads the government, writes Jonny Jones. We need to kick out the Tories by escalating and coordinating strikes and protests. That can put a pro-austerity Starmer government on the back foot from Day One.
If you think British politics has the tenor of a US sitcom right now, you’re not alone. There’s an episode of Seinfeld where George Costanza quits his job and, regretting his decision, turns up for work hoping that that his boss will let him stay on. He doesn’t, and George is quickly let go. The last week has seen this in reverse for the Prime Minister, Liz Truss, who on Thursday 30 October resigned after a few days of pretending she was still in charge, despite having been effectively sacked last week. As the former Tory minister Michael Gove joked shortly before the resignation, he used to be her boss, but that role was now ‘a job-share between Jeremy Hunt and the bond markets’.
It’s easy (and very satisfying) to make light of the desperate situation the Tories find themselves in. Truss was in office for just 44 days and in that time went through two chancellors, two home secretaries and brought the weight of the markets down on the Tories’ heads. A poll released on the day of Truss’s resignation put the Tories on 14 percent support, with Labour on 53 percent. Stats for Lefties predicts that such a result in a general election would lead to an unprecedented Labour majority of 410, with the Tories reduced to just 13 seats – behind the SNP and Lib Dems. Such a catastrophic result is unlikely, but a 1997 style wipe-out seems a real possibility. The closest to this polling the Tories have experienced was in 2019 in the run up to the European elections, when the majority of their voters defected to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party in protest; this time, there is no protest party.
However, as funny as all this seems, behind it stands a grim reality. The British government has fallen, with its prime minister and chancellor offered up as sacrifices, to the whims of the financial markets. It is true that Truss and Kwarteng had no electoral mandate for their project of supply-side reforms, in particular massive tax cuts for the rich funded by borrowing. They have failed on their own terms, ejected by the very markets which they hold to be sacrosanct. Yet what has been put in their place is effectively a junta at the behest of markets, based around the Tory establishment, with Jeremy Hunt as its strong and stable figurehead.
The Tories are now entering a truncated leadership election in which a new Prime Minister will be selected in the space of a week. The 1922 Committee has imposed high barriers to entry in an attempt to weed out fringe candidates who could slip through the MP’s selection process and get elected by the party’s increasingly right-wing membership base. There is even a reasonable chance that Boris Johnson may get the needed 100 nominations from Tory MPs to stand for a job he left in disgrace just weeks ago. But any new leader will find themselves constrained from the outset.
New Tory leader, new austerity
A new prime minister will almost certainly be bound by Jeremy Hunt’s pledges to a new round of austerity. They will be in place just days before the promised budget on 31 October, which is being assembled in dialogue with Hunt’s new economic advisory council, all four members of which are executives and fund managers. One was an architect of former chancellor George Osborne’s austerity programme, another an advisor to his successor, Phillip Hammond, while the remaining two are former members of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee. It seems highly unlikely that this budget is going to be disrupted, or that the Tories will dispense with the financial markets’ favoured chancellor at this moment.
The Tory leadership election is not about economic policy – that is now decided upon by the junta. Rather, it is about finding someone who can minimise the damage any future election poses to the party. Whoever it is, they will likely try to compensate for their lack of leeway over economic policy by leaning further into authoritarianism and anti-migrant racism to shore up their support. Yet the party is so internally riven by factionalism and rivalry that any leader, forced to enact what will be a deeply unpopular austerity budget in the context of a cost-of-living crisis, economic recession, and a rising tide of popular struggles by workers, will find the way forward difficult to navigate.
Starmer will also try to impose austerity
Keir Starmer’s Labour party has been the main beneficiary of the collapse in Tory support. After spending the last two and a half years savaging the left and rehabilitating Labour as the second party of British capitalism and imperialism, he is well placed to become the default substitute for the Tories. Starmer has repeatedly made clear that Labour is now the party of ‘sound money’. Labour’s Jess Phillips was even starker on BBC’s Question Time, saying that because of Liz Truss, Labour won’t be able to do things it would like to, but they promise to be ‘fiscally responsible’.
Nevertheless, it’s clear that most people are looking to Labour as an alternative to the Tories. A poll released on Friday showed that 78 percent of people wanted a general election in the next six months. The vast majority of people in Britain want a quick general election. They want to kick out the Tories. They don’t want to be governed by the financial markets. Yet we know that Starmer will not veer from the overall trajectory demanded by the markets. Does this mean we should be indifferent to calls for a general election? This would be a big mistake. The question for the left is how it relates to this mood in society.
Build the strikes and protests so Starmer is on the defensive from Day One
The Labour Party and prominent supporters, left and right, are calling for a general election now to get Starmer elected. The problem with leaving it at this is that it places the general election and Starmer’s election as the most important thing to fight for. While we may prefer the election of a Labour government, and it will likely boost the confidence of class-conscious workers, this cannot be the aim of the left. To prioritise the election of Starmer is to suggest that other action – strikes and protests – can be put aside so as not to spook the electorate.
The left needs to articulate the demands for democracy differently. In our campaigning groups and our unions, through protests and strikes, we can start to argue that we can bring down the Tories through action. The government do not want a quick election in which they will get smashed. So, the question becomes, can we contribute towards bringing forward the government’s demise? This is a test for activists organising through Don’t Pay, Enough is Enough, the People’s Assembly, Just Stop Oil, the renters unions, and crucially, in our unions, on picket lines and workplaces. We need to argue for escalation and coordination of strikes, to cooperate in building mass mobilisations against the cost-of-living crisis and in support of workers’ rights across the country. The call to bring down the government and for an election is about making it clear that the fight against crisis and austerity is the democratic movement.
It’s also about the footing we argue for in the movement. We are against de-escalation, against waiting for Labour, and for keeping up the action. The best check on a hostile Labour government is to keep building and mobilising against the effects of the cost-of-living crisis. Whatever we achieve in doing so, it at least creates the possibility of winning activists around a fighting orientation – against the perspective of pessimism and passivity that had gripped large swathes of the left since 2019.
We need again to be awake to what Daniel Bensaïd, discussing Lenin’s political thought, described as ‘politics as strategy, of favourable moments and weak links… as time full of struggle, a time of crises and collapses.’ In this time of crisis, let’s pull together to hasten the Tories collapse as a step towards building a confident and independent left.
Join the People’s Assembly protest on 5 November. Transport and further details here: https://thepeoplesassembly.org.uk/