The formal start of the Tory leadership election on Monday should serve as a critical wake-up call to the rest of our society about the profound and dangerous shift that has taken place in Conservative party politics.
Given the unrepresentative nature of the present, much reduced Conservative party membership, with local associations reportedly infiltrated by Ukip supporters, and given the near panic set in by the looming Farage and the Brexit party, Tory leadership candidates are lining up to embrace a Trump-style rightwing populism.
To stand any chance in the Tory leadership stakes, even those who could have been considered more liberal are having to dance to a primitive tune of a no-deal Brexit and a race to the bottom in tax cuts.
The warnings from the Tories’ own chancellor of the impact of a no-deal Brexit on jobs and living standards, even as they begin to hit our economy, are dismissed almost as Trump-like claims of fake news because they aren’t what they want to hear in the bar rooms of the Conservative clubs up and down the country. Instead, Tory leadership candidates are falling back on what they know will guarantee them a few votes among a selectorate of largely post-retirement age, romanticising still about the heady days of Margaret Thatcher.
Yes, Thatcherite tax cuts are back on the Tory agenda with a vengeance. The race to the tax-cut bottom has begun with tax cuts up to £30bn being floated by one contender, and a rightwing thinktank being praised by a number of candidates for proposing yet more corporation tax cuts.
The leadership campaign obsession with slashing taxes is just the latest evidence of the intellectual bankruptcy of the right, which is now widely apparent even to some Conservatives.
When in her first days as prime minister, Theresa May spoke about the “burning injustices” of society, there was at least a glimmer of appreciation of a community weary of nine years of harsh austerity and wanting change.
Laughable as the idea may seem now, that remains the most popular period of her leadership: something the candidates lining up to replace her – after she singularly failed to do anything about those injustices – seem not to have noticed. Whatever the question, the answer in this leadership election is always tax cuts and a smaller state.
The runners for the leadership are offering a rewinding of the clock and a re-fighting of the battles of the 1980s, seemingly oblivious to how the world has moved on. For many people, this is a country they no longer recognise and never thought they would see.
Even if Phillip Hammond hasn’t encountered it, most of our people have witnessed the evidence of what the United Nations special rapporteur described as the “systemic” poverty that now exists in the UK, with society’s safety net having been deliberately withdrawn. Large numbers of our people by their own personal experience, or by their donations, have recognised the description by Human Rights Watch’s report of welfare cuts driving tens of thousands of families to dependency on food aid.
As is often the case, the public are ahead of the political received wisdom, with only 4% favouring tax and spending cuts with a significant shift among even Conservative voters. Now ministers are admitting that the government will have to postpone this autumn’s three-year spending review that was supposed to end austerity. This is a government in absolute paralysis. Yet again the Tories’ promise to end years of austerity have come to nothing. This is no way to run a country. As Tories make rash promises to cut taxes, by contrast Labour will be the party of fiscal responsibility.
Labour will increase income tax on the top 5% of earners, the people who can afford it, who can pay a little bit more. But also tackle tax-dodging and reverse some of the giveaways to the corporations. Only Labour will tax the rich and giant corporations to end austerity, fund our public services properly, and rebuild our economy so it works for the many, not the few.
While the Tories demonstrate their political and intellectual bankruptcy during their narrow, claustrophobic leadership race, the left is buzzing with fresh thinking that relates to people’s everyday lived experiences – expanding public services free at the point of use, democratising ownership and devolving economic power, constructing a comprehensive industrial strategy, tackling the imbalances of power in the workplace, and rising to the overriding challenge of tackling climate change.
A new architecture of left and progressive thinktanks has been constructed, working together to enable the left to hegemonise the next stage in the political debate about the future of our country. But until we can get a general election, the country still faces the frightening prospect of a hard-right Tory leader pushing a no-deal Brexit and yet more tax and spending cuts.
With the burning injustices getting even more painful, that’s something that should terrify all of us. It should also ensure we demand that the people have the democratic power to prevent a no-deal Brexit and a new wave of tax and spending cuts.
John McDonnell, Guardian Opinion, 8th June 2019