Britain

Fourteen years of Tory rule: a balance sheet

11 June 2024
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By Jeremy Dewar

WHILE MILLIONS were delighted when Rishi Sunak announced the general election on 4 July, recognising this would mean the end of the Tory government, many of his own MPs were shocked, no doubt for the same reason. True to the party’s traditions, Sunak had consulted none of them on the decision and more than one hundred have already said they will not stand again, evidence of the demoralisation and deep divisions in their party.

For the Tories, Sunak has been a wretched failure. Policies such as slashing the country’s key climate change targets and awarding hundreds of new fossil fuel extraction licences, which were intended to appeal to the grassroots members who had preferred Liz Truss, only alienated the wider population. The failure to get any Rwanda flights off the ground only strengthened the impression of a government that had run out of ideas, while continuing to arm Israel during its war on Gaza made him complicit in genocide.

In an even more damning indictment, given that his family’s personal wealth rose by £122 million last year to £651 million according to the Sunday Times Rich List, Sunak and his Chancellor Jeremy Hunt robbed millions of public sector workers of thousands of pounds via sub-inflation pay deals—and then told them they would pay for the subsequent recession with vicious job cuts as services were slashed.
A YouGov poll released hours before the election announcement revealed only one in five respondents viewed either the Tories or Sunak positively, while 7 out of ten disapproved of both the prime minister and his party. And it’s easy to see why.

The Conservatives’ record

The accumulated sense of anger runs deeper than just the past year and a half of Sunak’s sorry premiership. People remember the brutal policies of the Tory and Lib-Dem coalition, including their tripling of tuition fees and cruel tightening of the sanctions regime.

David Cameron’s first government launched a harsh programme of austerity to pay off the huge debts used to bail out the banks in the financial crisis of 2007–8. These were then presented as evidence of Labour profligacy on social spending. Shrinking the budget deficit became the Tory-Lib Dem coalition mantra.

George Osborne imposed major cuts on workers and the lower middle classes. Housing benefit was reduced, councils lost a third of their income, child benefit was frozen, public sector workers’ pay was cut in real terms. Year after year, spending on public services, schools, hospitals and even spending on the police, courts and prisons were all reduced, while corporation taxes were cut.

Mass unemployment, peaking at over 10%, plus the tightening of the benefit regime forced millions onto zero-hours contracts and into bogus self-employment, leaving them at the mercy of unscrupulous employers and reliant on food banks.

The NHS saw a huge rise in waiting lists and delays. As Keep our NHS Public commented at the time: ‘the NHS is now facing its biggest crisis ever, with underfunding: 110,000 staff vacancies, bed cuts, ambulance services collapsing, record high waiting lists now over six million, and a massive maintenance backlog of around £9m that Age UK logged in Cameron’s first three years alone. In real terms, £710m had been cut from social care spending, mainly through the slashing of local authority budgets by as much as a fifth.’

Brexit

Austerity became so relentless and eventually hated that the Tories looked sunk. The ‘broken Britain’ that Cameron claimed to have inherited had morphed into ‘Britain smashed to smithereens’. The right wing of the party found scapegoats in the European Union and refugees and migrants, and this was seized upon by Nigel Farage and Ukip, who threatened to wipe the Tories out at the polls. Then the so-called centre ran to catch up, with Theresa May as Home Secretary avowedly making Britain a hostile environment, with ‘Go Home’ vans urging all those fleeing wars and persecution to repatriate.

So, Cameron gambled all by promising a referendum on EU membership in his 2015 manifesto to ward off the Ukip monster he had helped create. He won the election, then lost the referendum. It turned out he had no plan and neither did Boris Johnson or Michael Gove who had led the Leave campaign.

And so started the ghoulish circus of five Tory prime ministers, each ousting the other, limping on by bribing the wretched Democratic Unionists, who then realised that the Brexit they had voted for would inevitably put a border between the Six Counties and Britain. Three failed Brexit deals and two votes of no confidence finally did for Prime Minister May in a palace coup that brought in Boris Johnson who unconstitutionally closed parliament and, when the Supreme Court ruled that illegal, called a snap election on the ‘Get Brexit Done’ deception.

The UK finally left the EU in early 2020, but the ‘Golden Future’ with China, the ‘opportunity and prosperity’ Johnson promised, and even the regaining of ‘control of our borders’ failed to materialise. On the contrary, there is mounting awareness that Brexit has had a depressing effect on living standards.

Cambridge Econometrics says that by 2023 Brexit had cost the UK economy £140 billion and two million jobs. The Resolution Foundation says the average worker in the UK is on course to suffer over £470 in lost pay each year by 2030. No wonder 51% now think it would be good to rejoin the EU, though there is no chance of that, or even of rejoining the single market which Starmer once favoured.

Before the self-inflicted wound of Brexit could develop, the covid pandemic took its toll – especially hard in Britain, with nearly a quarter of a million dead, making it the worst hit country in Europe after Italy. After a decade of Tory cuts, the NHS was already on its knees when it faced the pandemic but Johnson, Rishi Sunak and Matt Hancock compounded the tragedy with a series of basic mistakes: issuing lockdowns too late and lifting them too early; sending elderly victims back into care homes with the disease; paying billions to their cronies for useless safety equipment; bungling test and trace; inviting a second wave with gimmicks like ‘Eat out to help out’.

A flood of scandal and sleaze followed the pandemic. Johnson and Sunak were caught attending law-breaking parties during lockdown—‘Partygate’—and the great buffoon had to go. In 2022, Liz Truss, another darling of the Tory right, was ‘voted’ into office by just 80,000 of the party faithful. Her £45 billion package of tax cuts led to a collapse in the bond market and the pound fell to a record low. Truss and her mates were out after just 49 days, making her Britain’s shortest-serving prime minister ever.

Sunak and Hunt: The return of austerity

Fearful of allowing their own unhinged party base to choose another extremist, Tory MPs plumped for some ‘safe hands’ in premier Sunak and Chancellor Hunt—safe for British capitalism, that is. They made workers pay for another economic crash, sending inflation rocketing while holding down wages.

Ruthless spending cuts led to seven local authorities in England going bankrupt, notably Birmingham, Britain’s second-largest city. After five prime ministers, seven chancellors, eight foreign secretaries and 16 housing ministers, the average Briton is about £10,000 a year worse off in real terms than in 2010. Some 4.3 million children are living in poverty and the NHS England waiting list has reached 7.5 million.

Rather than steadying the ship, Sunak and Hunt oversaw the death throes of the long Tory regime. Whether it’s their inhumane housing of migrants and the threat to deport them to Rwanda or responding to strikes with more anti-union legislation, forcing workers to scab, or giving the rapist and racist police more powers to arrest protesters or cutting taxes for the well-off while raising them for the workers, the Tories’ only motivation is to whip up their core voters and cover their right flank from Ukip Mark 2, Reform UK.

Nowhere is this more evident than in their banging of the war drum. Sunak’s surprise policy for a new National Service is little more than a joke, but Lord Cameron’s military, financial and diplomatic support for Israel’s genocide in Gaza is both serious and deadly. Defence spending is rising while money for schools, hospitals and housing is brutally cut away.

The Tories are the party of open class war against the working class and the organised Labour movement. This was shown in the 1920s and 30s, in the 1980s and 90s and is fully on display from 2010 to today.
The class instinct of millions of workers to use the election to kick them out before they can do yet more damage is progressive. Since there is no way to do this, at least on a national scale, except by voting Labour, Workers Power urges all class conscious workers to do just that.

In doing so, however, we also offer two warnings. Firstly, that the Tories would not have managed to commit their crimes against our class without the connivance and betrayal at various points over the past 14 years by the union and Labour Party leaders. These misleaders failed to fight austerity in parliament or with strikes during the Cameron years, leaving the NHS in particular to be shredded without serious opposition. Then Labour MPs and officials openly sabotaged Jeremy Corbyn’s bid to oust the Tories in 2017 and 2019 with their false smears of antisemitism.

Secondly, under the leadership of Starmer, Angela Rayner and Rachel Reeves, Labour has adopted the main planks of the Tory programme: massive austerity until the bosses’ profits have recovered from recession and stagnation; full throttle support for British imperialism abroad, via Nato rearmament and backing Israel’s right to commit genocide against the Palestinian people in the name of their ‘right to self-defence’.

Unless the working class organises to fight the next Labour government with all its might, we will be in for another five years of austerity, authoritarianism and militarism. The task of socialists therefore is to:

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