In Truss, they trusted

After BoJo’s long but often AWOL goodbye since resigning on 7 July 2022, you still need to pinch yourself to recognise that current favourite, Liz Truss, is going to be an even more right-wing PM than Johnson was.

The Tory leadership contest that led to her election highlights a number of drastic deficiencies in our democracy, centred around how i) tiny electorates – 357 MPs and 180,000 party members – have effectively decided who will be the next PM; and ii) parties in office change their leaders and, thus, their policies without gaining a popular mandate for either of these changes. This concerns both Westminster (Blair gave way to Brown in 2007, Cameron to May 2016, May to Johnson 2017) and Holyrood (Dewar to McLeish to McConnell in first Parliament and Salmond to Sturgeon in 2014). We’ll not have a chance to give a verdict on Truss until 2024 when the next scheduled general election takes place.

The contest became not just a case of playing to a reactionary and rabidly right-wing gallery-cum-constituency but also one at times which was utterly bizarre. Rishi Sunak was asked by the BBC on 17 July 2022 as to whether he saw himself as a ‘socialist chancellor’, presumably because he led on the creation of the furlough scheme and saw the ratio of government expenditure to revenue rise to such an extent that the national debt became higher than at any time since the end of the Second World War. It was no surprise that he answered with a ‘no’. But to ask that question in the first place shows a BBC journalist has no idea of what socialism is. Of course, bailing out capitalism during the pandemic or in the global financial crisis of 2008-2009 was not even ‘socialism for the bosses’. Socialism cannot solely be equated to levels of public expenditure, especially when it is not to the sole benefit of workers. The misuse of the term, socialism, continued the same day with Sunak saying to Truss in a debate over her proposal for immediate tax cuts that: ‘And you know what, this something-for-nothing economics is not conservative. It’s socialism’. By contrast, socialism of whatever actual type is a society which is run by workers for workers because workers are the biggest social class by far in any capitalist economy or society. What Truss is proposing are tax cuts that will disproportionately benefit the companies and the already rich, increasing the levels of poverty and inequalities in wealth and power.

Her rationale is that tax cuts – facilitated by cuts in public expenditure – will stimulate investment by capitalists which will in turn stimulate their profitability which in turn will provide a bigger tax and revenue base. Cutting corporation tax and so-called ‘red tape’ is a key part of this. Of course, for the rest of the populace, overturning the National Insurance Contribution rise plus cutting personal income tax is her planned way to help ameliorate the cost-of-living crisis and boost consumer spending for the benefit of said capitalists. It’s all classic neo-liberalism based on the ‘trickle down’ version whereby we all are supposed to get richer as the rich spend more of their riches, creating economic growth and jobs. In other words, crumbs off the bosses’ table. Part and parcel of Truss’s plans is a necessarily even smaller state, given that she is very definitely from the libertarian, free enterprise wing of the Tories. She has signalled her wish to make £11bn cuts in the civil service and end national pay rates by introducing regional ones. A Tory backlash against the latter led Truss to drop the idea but Sunak started to succumb to the pull of this logic by announcing he’d implement tax cuts albeit at a slower rate.  

All this casts a searching light upon Labour’s current perspectives under party leader, Keir Starmer. Labour by default – rather than its own conscious and deliberate actions – is well ahead of the Tories in the polls, giving support to the view that ‘governments lose elections rather than oppositions winning them’. Personally, as well as politically, Starmer does not inspire much confidence in people. Echoing the form and politics of Blair’s ‘education, education, education’ mantra, Starmer’s alternative to Sunak and Truss’s policies was to advocate ‘growth, growth, growth’ in an iteration of neo-liberalism that was not radically different from Sunak and Truss. Starmer emphasised that the ‘hard work’ – rather than just ‘work’ – of working people should be rewarded and that ‘growth, growth, growth’ was needed to guarantee this. But ‘growth, growth, growth’ does not guarantee this unless there is government intervention and government support for unions to ensure that the fruits of labour under ‘growth, growth, growth’ are more evenly distributed than they otherwise would be if left to the deregulated market. And, of course, that assessment is to leave aside whether growth in the midst of the climate crisis is sustainable environmentally.

There was also to be no place for public ownership as Starmer showed himself to be untrustworthy. His manifesto to be elected as Labour leader in 2020 involved committing to maintaining aspects of the Corbyn agenda over public ownership that he patently did not believe then and has now junked. Starmer says returning the privatised utilities to public ownership cannot be afforded, because he is being ‘practical’ and ‘responsible, and not ‘ideological’, conveniently forgetting that the likes of transport and energy are revenue-raising services and can help control the cost-of-living crisis. Even Gordon Brown has advocated selective temporary nationalisation of energy companies. The Green Party of England called for nationalising the big five energy companies, then followed by the Scottish Greens but not Sturgeon and the SNP who only said it should be considered as an option ‘on the table’, favouring market regulation via the price cap. Starmer says he would use regulation instead and has called for the present price cap not to be lifted. Using regulation to influence markets in privatised utilities or transport providers has not worked to the benefit of anybody other than their senior managers and shareholders. Starmer is not prepared to institute the kind of regulation that could change that. And, a one-off windfall tax on energy companies is but a drop in the ocean. Meanwhile, the French government effectively nationalised power company, EDF, in order to control the price of power. It is no wonder Labour lost 22,000 members since 2019.

Meantime, the SNP-Green Scottish Government launched its first new prospectus paper for independence in June on the economy followed by another in July on democracy with the setting of a date of 19 October 2023 for an intended referendum. As highlighted in the Herald (4 August 2022), there is not much in the way of the first prospectus paper that could be called social democratic. In the second paper, it was more a case of what is wrong with the political set-up in Britain than what could be a better alternative on a Scottish-only basis. At the moment, all that seems relatively unimportant to many when Truss is the likely successor to Johnson and Starmer offers no clear, progressive alternative. In other words, the one convincing counter-weight to independence through radical change across the whole of Britain does not exist. And yet one cannot ignore the refusal of the SNP leadership to allow a motion from the SNP Trade Union Group (SNP TUG) to the SNP October party conference. The motion urged the SNP to examine more imaginatively how the Scottish Parliament’s tax raising powers could be used in order to help generate extra finance to tackle the cost-of-living crisis. Specifically, the motion called for the Scottish Government to increase taxes on the highest earners and replace council tax so that a new residential property tax related to actual property values could be introduced. It is hard not to conclude two things. First, the SNP leadership does not want to tax the rich. Second, the SNP leadership does not want to do anything to undermine the case for independence by showing the devolved settlement can work better than it currently does. Meantime, children from poorer areas continue to do worse in exams than those from richer areas despite closing this ‘attainment gap’ being a priority for the last 8 years under Sturgeon. It is no wonder the SNP has lost 21,000 members since 2019.

In all this, it seems that union leaders like the RMT’s Mick Lynch along with the likes of financial commentator, Martin Lewis, and footballer, Marcus Rashford, are among the few convincing voices of opposition to the rule of neo-liberalism (even if their opposition is not explicitly couched in these terms). The battle on pay being fought by the unions continues to heat up but it’ll not be until later in the year – and maybe into next – when we know whether there will be a more generalised revolt, north and south of the border, in the likes of the fire and rescue service, the civil service, NHS, schools and universities. There are two basic, immediate ways to resolve the cost-of-living crisis – raising the real value of wages and simultaneously lowering the costs of living. The latter requires controls on prices and, thus, on profits as well as taking sectors into public ownership. As intimated above, this is clearly not something Starmer is prepared to countenance but Corbyn was.  

While the left rightly cheerleads for strikes and will continue to do so as inflation is predicted to rise further from the current 13%, this is very far from being enough. Even a more generalised strike would not be enough to right the wrongs. Yes, it would be a start but there is a need for a more deep-seated and permanent change in the balance of power between capital, labour and the state. Here we need not just legislation to repeal the anti-unions laws (over industrial action and interference in how unions run their affairs) but also introduce something like a union default system. Under the default, and after attaining minimum membership threshold levels, all workers in a bargaining unit (workplace, company, sector) are defaulted into membership with the right to opt out afterwards – so this is not compulsory membership as with the closed shop. But it reverses the non-union default that presently exists where all workers are non-union members until they join a union. This allows employers through substitution (e.g., works councils, staff forums) and suppression (e.g., selective sacking of activists) to coax and cajole workers into not joining unions. When the majority of workers become union members, it sets a new social norm of what is seen as the right and proper thing to do. A default would quickly boost membership so that we could then see unions getting above inflation level deals, stop the race to the bottom and stop non-unionised workers’ pay and conditions pulling down those of unionised workers so the opposite could happen – unionised workers would pull up non-unionised workers. Even the demand for the right to sectoral bargaining – so that workers do not have to fight companies on a one-by-one basis and so that wages are taken out as a factor of competition between companies – requires that union density is massively increased. Otherwise, unions will be forever scrapping around for crumbs off the bosses’ table, more akin to collective begging than collective bargaining.

Such an idea indicates that there’s much than just more hoping worker militancy spreads. But there’s also more we need to think about given the cost-of-living crisis will continue. Such ideas include maximum wages, solidaristic wage policies and the sliding scale of wages. This would represent an institutionalisation of progressive policies because free collective bargaining on its own would not likely ever be strong enough and widespread enough to cover all workers. And, there is a complementarity between the ideas of a union default, on the one hand, and maximum wages, solidaristic wage policy and the sliding scale of wages, on the other, especially as stronger unions will be needed to achieve such policies.

Of course, the practical problem is finding a political party that is willing to adopt such a portfolio of policies – and then gets elected to office on that basis. Currently, Labour under Starmer is not such a party but Labour under Corbyn was much more likely to be such a party. Scottish Labour under Sarwar is not substantially different just because Sarwar visited some picketlines.

Looking to the future

Previous editorials have commented upon how Saturday mobilisations against the cost-of-living crisis have been too small to hit the mark. We await to see what the launch of the ‘Enough is enough’ campaign by the CWU union can bring in terms of mobilisation rather than just people signing up it, attending its rallies and following it on Twitter. The same is true for the intended ‘Don’t Pay’ non-payment of energy bills in terms of whether it becomes a mass action of 1m+ non-payers. The Power to the People demonstrations in Glasgow against Scottish Power and Ofgem on two Friday afternoons in August drew healthy crowds. Maybe this was because it focussed on a specific and more pressing material issue. We await to see how the STUC ‘Scotland demands a pay rise’ demonstration outside the Scottish Parliament on Thursday 8 September goes.

Scottish Left Review price rises

While there have been a couple of price rises to reflect increases in postage costs over the last decade, the cover price of the magazine has been £2 per issue for the last fifteen years. With all our costs of operating now increasing, we have no option but to increase the cover price to £3 per issue. This means subscriptions will increase from £18 to £21 for waged subscribers and from £14 to £18 for unwaged subscribers. We are sorry about this during a cost-of-living crisis but we believe we remain best left-wing magazine in Scotland.