News & Analysis

Trouble at the top: the social roots of the Tory crisis

02 November 2022
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By Tim Nailsea

THE CURRENT crisis in the Tory Party is the latest manifestation of a deep division in the party of the British ruling class. For the last hundred years, the Conservative Party has operated as a coalition of different, sometimes competing, capitalist interests. In modern times, the main blocs within it have been financial interests, industrial capitalists and the petty bourgeoisie (small capitalists, managers and high paid professionals), all of whom have a vested interest in the defence of private property and the exploitation of the working class. The Conservative Party has been the main vehicle by which these groups have used state power to advance their interests.

Since the 1970s, there has been a deliberate destruction of Britain’s industrial base, primarily driven by the interests of international monopoly and finance capital, that seeks to maximise profits through exploitation of cheaper labour overseas. Manufacturing has become less of an integral part of Britain’s economy, with industrial capitalists becoming weaker and less influential in the Conservative Party, and finance capital (already in many ways hegemonic) becoming increasingly dominant.

The industrial capitalists could act as a transmission belt between big capital and small. The petty bourgeoisie’s own profits are often tied to the existence of big employers maintaining workers as a customer base, and many also depend upon big business for contracts or as customers for their goods and services.

Finance capital is more distant, often appearing in the small capitalist’s life as a source of aggravation, or even ruination, in the form of the bank or creditor. The small business owner doesn’t have a boss, but they do have to answer to the bank. Frequent economic crises have led to the petty bourgeoisie feeling squeezed. Their small scale enterprises are more vulnerable to shock. The petty bourgeoisie is therefore often in outright antagonism with the finance capitalists. The 2008 financial crisis revealed this antagonism with many petty bourgeois correctly identifying finance-capital as the source of their hardship.

It does not necessarily follow, however, that the petty bourgeoisie will draw anti-capitalist conclusions from this antagonism. They will often view their own oppression in reactionary terms. They assert nationalism and racism against international capital, and their ‘freedom’ to exploit without regulation by the state.

Tory crisis

This antagonism revealed itself during the Brexit crisis. The European Union was a source of division inside the Tory Party because its voting base and membership saw it as an imposition of international finance capital (although not in those terms); while most bigger manufacturers (relying on imports or exports) and finance capitalists were keen on the free movement of capital, goods, services and labour. As the influence of industrial capital weakened and the proportion of finance capital within the membership declined, the petty bourgeois wing carried increasing weight. In addition, they were joined by a wing of big capital, organised by Nigel Farage, that saw Brexit as a step towards completing the privatisation of the public sector.

The Tory membership is almost entirely made up of petty bourgeois but its voters have always included a significant number of workers in small enterprises and these have been joined by others in the de-industrialised regions. Rallied by nationalist rhetoric, this combination drove through Brexit and installed Johnson as Prime Minister. In the past, the big bourgeoisie’s representatives at the head of the Conservative Party were happy to use jingoism to rally its base, but Brexit displayed that this reactionary base was beginning to take on a life of its own.

This was compounded by the experience of the short-lived Truss government. Kwasi Kwarteng’s budget, which aimed at cutting taxes and regulation while maintaining spending, was designed to pander to the Tory base. Measures such as ‘light-touch’ economic zones, ‘slashing red tape’, and lowering corporation tax would appeal to big and small businesses alike, but concessions such as the energy cap were designed to keep the middle class and petty bourgeoisie onside. While many petty bourgeois like to maintain the myth of being self-reliant, they are often just as reliant on state spending as the working class.

The collapse of the Johnson and Truss governments should be seen in this context. Johnson was removed by a rebellion of Tory parliamentarians led by Rishi Sunak, a bag carrier for finance capital. Truss, after attempting to implement an arch-reactionary economic policy, was removed by a rebellion of the markets. International finance capital’s reaction to her budget forced her resignation. Without consulting the Tory petty bourgeois base, who would have reinstalled Johnson, the parliamentary party put Sunak in Number 10.

The split in the Tory Party has been papered over for now. Sunak has granted right wingers top positions, such as the Home Office to Braverman, from which they can pursue reactionary social policies, which Sunak and the big bourgeoisie care little about, but which consume the confused minds of the Tory base. Meanwhile, the representatives of finance capital, such as Sunak and Hunt, will ensure that they have a firm handle on economic policy. We are thus facing an austerity economic policy coupled with brutal attacks on migrants, women, LGBT people and, crucially, trade unions.

While there is a growing split between small and big capital, both can agree on the need to smash the trade union movement, attack workers’ pay and conditions, and remove labour regulations to greater exploit workers.

Strategy

The electoral importance of the petty bourgeoisie has led some on the left to argue for a political strategy to break them from the Tories and bring them into an alliance with the working class. This strategy is set out at length in the Communist Party of Britain’s programme, Britain’s Road to Socialism. Its main point is that,

“Some sectors or enterprises orientated towards industry rather than financial services, or the domestic rather than export market, or which are home-owned rather than owned from outside, can be split away from a united front of monopoly capital by appropriate measures. Small business owners may have their own reasons for opposing monopoly power, and their support for anti-monopoly policies can prove important in blocking reactionary mobilisations against the labour movement and the left.”

Other supposed potential allies include “genuinely self-employed workers who own their own means of production, small business owners including small farmers who employ little or no labour and those senior managers who are still ultimately dependent on selling their own labour power for much of their livelihood.”

This is the left variant of the ‘popular front’ strategy, as compared to the right wing which aims to form alliances with the “progressive” liberal wing of the capitalist class against the hard right. Both ignore the fundamental fact that neither wing of the capitalist class, whatever their position on isolated issues, can ever come down unreservedly on the side of the working-class, because their interests are ultimately served by its exploitation.

While it is true that the Tory petty-bourgeois base can sometimes be in open conflict with finance-capital and its standard of living can be closer to that of the working-class than that of billionaire bankers, ultimately its class interest is the preservation of private property and exploitation. That is why there can be no fundamental, society-changing, alliance with the working class whose interest lies in collective ownership of the economy.

This is not to say that there can never be shared interests on particular issues. It does mean that any alliance is bound to be temporary and the working class must maintain its own independent programme and organisation throughout. In any event, the petty-bourgeoisie is unlikely to form alliances with the working-class movement unless the latter shows itself to be a powerful opponent of big capital. The workers’ organisations should, of course, be prepared to accept support from petty bourgeois organisations or campaigns, the key point is not to drop working class demands in order to win such support.

Meet them head on

The inability of the working-class movement to form any kind of sustained alliance with the petty bourgeoisie has been proven by Brexit and the subsequent years of Tory division. As the antagonism between the Tory base and finance capital intensified, the base has moved further and further towards open reaction. While some leftwing organisations and individuals attempted to make some kind of left argument for Brexit, the impossibility of relating to the nationalist movement that brought it about was clear.

The current division in the Tory Party could certainly be exploited by the working class movement, but not through an alliance of interests with either side. Instead, what is required is an offensive, with the unions advancing an aggressive strike movement aimed at defeating the government’s austerity programme and defending public services, workers’ rights and living standards and the rights of the socially oppressed.

Such a fight would no doubt create further turmoil within the Conservative party and even drive them from office. More importantly, it would advance the ability of the working class to defend itself against the next offensive that the international capitalist crisis will inevitably demand.

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