Britain - Partygate, Brexit, inflation and attacks on jobs: will there be a fightback?

spring 2022

Boris Johnson remains firmly implanted in 10 Downing Street, for the time being at least, despite repeated calls for his resignation. His walkabout with Ukraine's president Zelenskyy along the streets Kyiv on 10 April, ahead of any other world leader and now his "statesman-like" visits to Sweden and Finland, to sign mutual defence pacts with them were designed to turn around the "Partygate" tide which looked as if it would wash him out of Downing Street. And this seems to have worked for now.

    So for instance The Economist, the voice of British business, writes of Johnson that although "his character [is]questionable, and his judgement weak; [and his] threats to rip up Britain's deal with the EU are deeply wrong headed. But on Ukraine at least... flourish and boldness have served Mr Johnson well". And comparing Johnson to his predecessor, Theresa May, who, it says "flew on a plane decked in dull air-force grey", it writes approvingly that Johnson flies in a plane "liveried in red, white and blue, with gold lettering down the fuselage"! As the saying goes, patriotism being the last refuge of the scoundrel, these scoundrels have certainly found theirs. 

    In fact the deeply anti-working class and closet-far-right nature of Johnson's "hard Brexit" government is not only illustrated by the "Britain first" support for Zelenskyy and the fuelling of war in Ukraine "before all the others", but in the announcement of several unprecedented and extremely ugly domestic policies. 

    When the cost of living crisis was on all the politicians' lips and Chancellor Rishi Sunak was under renewed pressure to "do something" after a Queen's Speech devoid of any measures to alleviate it, what did Johnson announce? That there would be 91,000 job cuts in the Civil Service! So 91,000 more workers are to join the ranks of those who cannot afford to pay their bills today!

    Various experts joined in the chorus to advise cuts in government expenditure. A Professor Len Shackleton of the Institute of Economic Affairs said: "Culling [yes, that was the word used!] civil servants is necessary, but it should only be the start of the Government’s attempts to reduce public spending and allow us to reduce taxes. Savings of £3.5 billion are a drop in the oceanthe Government spent more than £1 trillion last year". So yes, according to the experts, there should be far more cuts to come!

    Then on 15 May, came Johnson's own personal endorsement of the policy of his Home Secretary, Priti Patel, to send asylum seekers on a one-way ticket to Rwanda which had at first sounded like some kind of bizarre aberration on her part. The PM himself has now announced that 50 refugees have been served with notice of their deportation to Kigali within 2 weeks. Both Johnson and Patel know full well that Rwandan President Paul Kagame is a practitioner of non-judicial killing, state-sanctioned beating and torture and presides over a de facto one-party state, and assassinates (preferably by poisoning and strangulation) his rivals, critics and "traitors"like former officers of his Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) who can no longer stomach his methods. This is precisely the reason they chose Kigali as an appropriate destination for refugees. Which doesn't stop them from defending their choice with assertions that Rwanda is "a safe country to relocate people to".

    And now, at the time of writing this, Boris Johnson is hurrying over to Belfast to pacify Democratic Unionist politicians who are refusing to take their seats in the newly-elected Assembly, unless he does something about what really is "his" Northern Ireland Protocol. He is likely to assure them that it's perfectly possible to override parts of the deal, which is not actually true. In other words, he is giving full backing to Foreign Secretary Liz Truss who, having already put her foot in her mouth over Britain sending planes to Ukraine (and thus provoking a symmetrical threat from Putin) is threatening the EU that if they do not do as she says over the Protocol, she will break their joint Agreement.

The unwinding of Boris Johnson's kingdom?

There is little doubt that Johnson is trying to distract attention from the dark cloud of "Partygate" which has been hanging over his head ever since rumours of parties at Downing Street first leaked out. He has faced repeated and highly embarrassing calls to resign from his own front bench and ex-ministers. Even MP and former chief whip, Steve Baker, who chaired the hard-Brexit promoting European Research Group told Johnson that he should have been "long gone".

    But while the Conservative party was undoubtedly punished by its electorate for Johnson's shenanigansit suffered quite significant losses in the 5 May local elections it did not lose as many seats as some had predicted. 

    In England, it lost 481 council seats in total. It got just under 30% of the overall vote. However, if the result of the local elections was replicated at a general election, the number-crunchers tell us that the Conservatives would lose their Commons majority. Johnson and his loyalists claimed it was perfectly "normal" for the party in power to do badly in a "mid-term" electionof course!

    There were "historic" losses of London councils to Labour, like Westminster, which had never ever seen any other party take it and Wandsworth, which had been in Conservative hands for 44 years! However, while the Conservatives control 13 fewer councils compared with 2021, Labour's overall gain was just one. The Liberal Democrats gained 4.

    In Scotland however, the Conservatives lost badly, coming third for the first time since 2016. Its local leader said he thought that "public anger over Partygate had played a big part". In fact in the last years most Scots who are against the Scottish National Party's programme for independence had been voting Conservative, given its strong unionist stance. But this year many voted Labour instead. Not as an endorsement of its policies, but merely as an anti-independence protest.

    It's worth mentioning that the Scottish National Party (SNP) has won 11 Scotland-wide elections in a row and has now been in power in Scotland for 15 years. This does not mean that the majority of the Scots are in favour of its flagship policya new referendum on independence which leader Nicola Sturgeon promises for 2023. In fact support for Scottish independence, remains around 50% in the population as a whole.

    In Wales however, the picture was quite different. While the Tories lost the only council they controlled, Labour, in power in the Welsh Assembly, gained seats and did generally very well. This is likely to be because leader Mark Drakeford, who comes across as a benign fatherly figure, was seen to handle the Covid pandemic better than most. The Welsh nationalists did not do well. 

    Overall the turnout was around 34% which is average for local elections. So, while some commentators had expected this to be an election where most people voted "none of the above", in fact Tory voters chose to give their vote to the Liberal Democrats, Greens or independents, in order to express their disgust at Johnson's delinquent disregard for his own Covid rules, his lies and his bombast. 

But Labour just can't cut it

All of that said, and despite everything, Johnson's party is not yet over. His political party, that is... And Labour has proved incapable of capitalising on his disgrace. While their vote share in the English election was 35%, six points up on last year, overall, its votes were 3 points down in the so-called former "Red Wall" in the North of England, where it lost so many seats to the Tories in 2019. In Hartlepool, one of the most deprived northern councils, the Conservatives even increased their vote!

    In fact the overall Labour result was no better than comparable local elections in 2018 when the much-reviled Jeremy Corbyn was still party leader! What an upset that must be for Keir Starmer! His cleansing of "Corbynism" and Corbyn himself who is still suspended from the parliamentary party doesn't seem to have cut much ice with the electorate. Then again, Starmer has positioned Labour to the right of the Liberal Democrats and turned it pro-Brexit!

    These days, Labour MPs drape themselves in the Union Jack flag at every photo-opportunity. Having been fully bipartisan in the "war against Covid", the party is even more so today over the war in Ukraine, and has adjusted Labour policy to support NATO without reservation.

    As for the tit-for-tat, re-opened police investigation over Starmer's own alleged Covid rule-breaking the verdict is awaited. He admits he drank beer and ate a curry with fellow canvassers during last year's local election campaign, but believed it was OK as he was "working" at the time.

    Of course he is claiming the high moral ground. He says he will resign if found guilty, unlike his counterpart, Mr Johnson. Many Labour voters would probably wish for such an outcome. And there are those right and left libertarians who say that if this former Public Prosecutor falls foul of the criminalisation of Covid-rule-breakers, it's only what he deserves: he voted for it. In fact he voted for all of the government's laws during the pandemic. 

Sinn Fein winsby playing its own nationalism down!

It was in Northern Ireland (NI) where the 5 May election really upset the political apple cart. For the first time since the new Assembly was set up in 1998, the Irish republican Sinn Fein won the most seats (27). And of course, for the first time since 2003, the Democratic Unionist Party(DUP) came second with 25 seats.

   The reason SF won is generally said to have been its emphasis on tackling the cost of living crisis and "putting money in everyone's pockets". So a pro-EU party whose armed wing, the now decommissioned Irish Republic Army (IRA) was the sworn enemy of Britain, and which wants a united Ireland, has been elected to lead the NI Assembly! Except that, because of Johnson's NI Protocol, which was the only way to "get Brexit done", this historic occasion is, for the time being, totally obstructed by the DUP!

    The unionists are now blackmailing Johnson, by refusing to appoint a deputy first minister, unless Johnson gets rid of the customs post in the sea between Britain and NI. And that means the Assembly remains suspended in mid-air, as it has five times before this and for 8 years out of the 23 years of its existence!

    And all because of conditions written into the much-vaunted 1998 Peace Agreement, precisely to appease unionism.

    This peace deal may have ended 30 years of "Troubles", but it built into its constitution the same sectarian divide represented today by the so-called "peace walls" in working class neighbourhoods which separate nationalist from unionist and Catholic from Protestant. It stipulates that the executive has to have 2 first ministers, one nationalist and one unionist, with equal powers. Otherwise, no devolved NI government! So the DUP seems to hold the whip hand. There will be no executive (indeed no NI government) because they won't appoint a deputy unless the NI Protocol goes. 

    Of course, as all politicians sanctimoniously remind everyone, the 1998 Peace Agreement also stipulates that the border between the independent southern Irish Republic, which is inside the EU, and the North, inside Britain, must remain open and invisible. Which is why the EU/British customs post is sitting in the only place it can bethe middle of the Irish sea and why NI thus remains inside the EU customs union.

    From day 1, the unionists have been asserting that the economy is being severely damaged by the NI protocol, because some fresh goods might be prevented (or delayed) from entering the six counties.

    But the real reason for the their obstruction against the Assembly has nothing to do with customs checks. It’s all about defending the unionists’ special status in this 6-county state-let which, after 101 years, is coming to a natural, demographic, end.

The customs union is good for them

Even so, it is worth mentioning that the Institute for Economic and Social Research, in its latest quarterly report on Britain's economic outlook, says Northern Ireland’s economic output "has slightly outperformed the UK average..." and that this is "partly an outcome of the Northern Irish protocol and its special status in the Brexit arrangements, including better trade and investment conditions as part of the EU’s single market and customs union..."! It goes on to say that "Closer links with the EU, through trade and also potentially labour mobility, have benefited Northern Ireland post-Brexit". Yes, indeed! And that was only to be expected! But what now? If Johnson and Truss decide to override the Protocol, isn't it they who will be damaging the Northern Irish economy?

    It should be recalled that the majority (55.8%) in the North voted to remain in the EU in 2016. In fact the one border which it would make sense to get rid of today is the border which was forced on the Irish people in 1921, separating the 26 Counties of today's Irish Republic from the six counties of of Northern Ireland. Then no specially-designed protocols would be needed.

     Under the 1998 Belfast Agreement, a referendum on re-uniting Ireland is meant to take place across the whole of Ireland but only if a majority is thought to want it and the people of the South will also get to vote. 

    This is not on the cards even if re-uniting Ireland would, in practical terms, solve the Brexit problem. The reason is that the 5 May election saw a large increase in the number of seats occupied by the Alliance Party, which sits in the so-called "middle ground" against the sectarian and partisan politics which have shaped Northern Ireland. It gained 17 seats, 9 more than in 2017. Apparently some young middle class voters no longer identify with the bitter, pre-1997 political divide between unionists and nationalists. And what this may mean for a vote over re-uniting Ireland, which Sinn Fein stands for, is not clear. 

    For now, the outcome of Johnson's visit to Belfast on 16 May is not known. Various concessions have been already been made on both sides by the EU and Britain over the NI Protocol. But since the cause of the latest Stormont crisis is not a matter of tweaking the various checks, but bigoted and reactionary unionist politics, which Johnson also subscribes to, let's hope the NI population refuses a "British solution", as it has in the past!

Is Brexit also unwinding?

Even though Johnson was elected on the promise of "getting Brexit done" in 2019, it is not fully implemented yet. His loyal defender, Jacob Rees-Mogg, aka the Member of Parliament for the 18th Century, is now "Minister for Brexit Opportunities". On 28 April, he announced that customs and Sanitary and Phytosanitary checks, scheduled to be phased in from July this year, will be delayed for the fourth time! He says that "with rising prices and the war in Ukraine it would be wrong to impose new administrative burdens and risk disruption at ports and to supply chains". But not only will this "unfairly" benefit EU exporters (!), while British exporters are still subject to EU controls, but it's also an admission of the huge additional cost of Brexit to British business estimated at £1 billion! And that's before the "world-beating" high-tech border is erected... In Rees-Mogg's own words: it's "an act of self-harm". But that doesn't mean he is prepared to change his pro-Brexit tune!

    It is generally accepted by now, that Brexit is pushing up prices, adding 6% to already rising costs due to the aggravating world crisis. It is also generally accepted that Brexit has devastated the workforce. Figures for March this year show that the number of unfilled vacancies rose to a record of more than 1.3 million. In social care, 160,000 posts are unfilled; in the NHS England it's over 110,000. Many of these jobs were done by immigrant workers, since the home-made British workforce is steadily shrinking. But they also picked fruit and vegetables, and did most of the bloody work in abattoirs. Hence the need to cull 35,000 healthy pigs up to January; 100,000 pigs are stuck on farms that should have gone to slaughter; farmers say they themselves won't survive the next 12 months...

A fightback on the horizon?

Faced by the turn of the government-aided capitalist screw, as outlined in the Queen's speech, the working class certainly needs to fight back. And given all the labour shortages, it should have some advantage on its side. But despite the lack of hands, wages have not been going up accordingly. This is the main reason why several industrial action ballots are now underway against pay freezes and below-inflation pay offers.

    The most important of these has been organised by the main railway workers' union, the RMT, which is proposing its first (near) national railway strike in 40 years! But it balloted for simultaneous action in only 15 of the (still private!) train operating companies out of 22. And while that includes most of the largest workforces, it excludes Scotrail workers, who have staged some of the more militant and successful sectional strikes over recent years.

    This problem of sectional strikes and separate ballots on the railways is the legacy of privatisation, which chopped the formerly nationalised and centralised system into so many separate companies. But that there is no excuse for the way that the railway union leaderships choose to stick to their own legacy of division of working class ranks, that is acting in their capacity as three separate unions, with separate agendas. ASLEF, which represents most train drivers and TSSA, the white collar rail union, could easily have co-ordinated their ballots with the RMT, but instead, they are (maybe!) holding them two weeks later.

    Railway workers in the RMT have been told that the rail strike might only start on the 18th June. However this is the same day as a Trade Union Congress demonstration is due to take place, called under the slogan "We demand better: working people have had enough; everything’s going up but our wages".

    Of course there is very little to be expected from the toothless and collaborationist TUC, but this protest could at least allow workers to march together and measure their own strength. Such a protest is long overdue. Living standards have already fallen to the lowest level in over 60 years. Gas and electricity prices went up by 54% in April and will go up another 32% in October. Along with national insurance rises, these two increases alone, will mean that workers will be at least £1,200 poorer this year. Many families must choose between eating and heating their homes and 2.5 million people are estimated to be resorting regularly to free food banks. So yes, of course the TUC is right: enough is enough!

    However, while the working class has been invigorated by several decades-worth of young immigrant workers who have settled in the country, union leaderships have got more fossilised and more entrenched in their anti-struggle tactics: they obtain a strike vote and then use it merely to bargain. They do anything to prevent the workers from gaining confidence in their own strength by striking back at the system collectively. But maybe this is the year when that could change... with angry younger workers with plenty of energy coming together with the older generation who have learnt the lessons of the past; who know that the union leaders can never be trusted to lead and that strikers have to take over control of their own struggles. We hope so, because it is the only effective way to win!