Working class and young people will have watched Rishi Sunak’s Tory conference speech in horror, if not surprise. Every vile, reactionary idea he could raise, he did raise. Every marginalised group he could attack, he did attack. Every dog whistle, he whistled.
After years of trying to present himself as the stable, ‘sensible’ counterpart to the Johnson wing of the party, Sunak has clearly now concluded that a change of direction is necessary. To throw off his ‘ill-defined’ image, he has decided that he in fact needs to be more Johnson than Johnson.
Culture wars ramped up like never before
Doubling down on the culture wars was the order of the day – as has been the case throughout the whole conference, and even before. The other most notable example was home secretary Suella Braverman’s disgusting speech on refugees, where she warned of a ‘hurricane’ of mass migration and expressed her desire to be able to send women and LGBTQ+ people back to countries where they would face persecution from reactionary regimes.
Sunak, of course, did nothing to counter this. Instead he claimed that the UK’s ‘strategy’ to reduce small boat crossings – i.e. to block some of the most desperate, vulnerable and exploited asylum seekers from making their way to Britain – is ‘working’. It will ‘work’ even better, he says, once the government can begin their hated policy of deporting people to Rwanda. And if it doesn’t work, or is found to be in breach of international agreements, Sunak “will do whatever is necessary to stop the boats” – referring to the potential to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights.
No policy from capitalist politicians will end people fleeing their home countries for safety. That is because nobody takes this path unless forced to do so by the desperate conditions forced upon them by the capitalist system. Socialist Alternative calls for the closure of all detention centres and an end to criminalisation of refugees. Socialist policies that enable mass programmes of job creation and house building, alongside the right for all to work, to be paid the rate for the job and join a trade union, are essential. Ultimately, only a socialist future offers hope of an end to the war, persecution, climate catastrophe and poverty that force people to flee.
Transphobic record on repeat
Continuing the (probably most frequently repeated) theme that ran through the conference of attacking trans people, Sunak became the umpteenth speaker to declare “a man is a man and a woman is a woman”. He repeated the announcement made by health secretary Steve Barclay that trans people will be banned from single-sex hospital wards that correspond to their gender.
This relentless weaponising of trans people’s very existence is a dangerous attempt to divide working class people and distract us from the multiple crises the Tories are presiding over. Working class and young people have demonstrated time and again their enthusiasm for expressing solidarity across different oppressed groups and for mobilising against this reactionary rhetoric. That will be further shown on the 25 November protests against gender violence which Socialist Feminist Alternative is building for, which will champion demands including for trans-inclusive healthcare as part of a fully-funded, publicly owned NHS. It is of vital importance that the trade unions take up the defence of trans rights. Socialist Alternative members in the unions are fighting for them to bring the collective strength of 6 million workers into the fight to defend our trans siblings.
These attacks on refugees and trans people make clear the hypocrisy in Sunak’s rhetoric during the speech about the importance of family – clearly he means only a certain type of family! Sunak said: “It is family that cares for us at the beginning of our life. It is family that helps us learn. It is family that sustains us. And in old age it is family that lightens the autumn of our days.”
What a galling statement to hear for those who work in childcare, education and elderly care, as well as those working class families trying to access them. Workers in these sectors are being battered by the cost of living crisis and a government that refuses real wage rises. Services are under huge strain with long waiting lists and limited resources. Prices for the privatised elements of these services are extortionate.
Sunak also attempted to portray himself as a ‘protector of children’, with policies like a ban on future generations buying cigarettes and on children bringing phones into schools. What Sunak really means by his support for ‘family’ is a bolstering of backward ideas about gender roles, about expecting women to do huge unpaid care work within the home, and about the responsibility in general of individuals to fill in for the failings of state provision, as well as to teach children what is expected of them by the capitalist system.
Attacks on benefits claimants and war on education
In the context of price rises, cuts to services, real terms pay cuts, the mental health crisis and so on, it is clear that working class families are barely able to keep their heads above water because of Tory policies. This will only be made worse by one of Sunak’s other speech announcements – a ramping up of benefit sanctions. Sunak’s speech, as well as Jeremy Hunt’s tirade on the stage, falsely implies that there is a large constituency of benefit claimants lying about their inability to work. The best ways to reduce the Universal Credit bill would be for the immediate implementation of a £15 an hour minimum wage, a mass programme of job creation, and rent control.
Even Sunak’s announcements on education were a thinly veiled continuation of his ‘war on woke’ – putting forward the idea that too many people have been going to university, wasting their money on “rip-off degrees”. He announced plans for a new end-of-school qualification, which will likely take a decade to implement. If other such plans of the Tories are anything to go by, we can expect chaos in that time!
Teaching unions were quick to point out that theoretical, headline-grabbing shake-ups don’t do anything to address the immediate crises of teacher recruitment and retention and crumbling school buildings. Put simply, there are already far too few teachers for current needs, let alone the extra ones that would be added by these proposed plans.
Sunak suggested there may be large bonuses offered to attract more teachers. But where will the funding come from? Schools have been told the (insufficient) pay rise offered to teachers needs to be funded from existing budgets – meaning cuts have to be made elsewhere. Workload – related not only to understaffing, but also to the target-driven exam culture in education – is a key reason why so many teachers leave the job within the first few years of their careers.
Sunak’s position is neither strong nor sustainable
The policy announcement that got most attention was actually already known about before the conference but Sunak refused to admit reality for weeks – HS2 will never reach Manchester. Most railways in Britain were built during the Victorian era. We need real investment and public ownership of our transport infrastructure and planning based on the needs of ordinary people living in the North and elsewhere. This should be achieved by nationalising the construction industry and the rail companies, under democratic workers control.
This speech won’t go down as a roaring success for Sunak’s supporters. But it does mark something – the start of a different type of campaigning from the Tory leadership as we move into the pre-general election period. Preparing jointly for an election campaign and for the likely prospect of being in opposition after it, they have decided that their best bet to shore up their voting base is a ‘tough’ approach. There was a side-swipe at the pro-independence movement in Scotland. While Sunak is correct that the leadership of the independence movement is in crisis, the underlying conditions that built such working-class support for independence from Westminster have only intensified.
It’s no small challenge for the Tories to try to present themselves as the party of change after 13 years in office. The party’s internal civil war is always just under the surface. This latest turn does not detract from Sunak’s more mainstream Tory approach to the economy, for example, which is not popular with those he is now lining up with on social issues. His position is anything but strong and stable.
And yet, there are likely several months, perhaps even over a year, before the General Election. Nothing can be ruled out. An overall majority for any party is very far from assured. Starmer’s Labour is offering no real alternative – in fact they seem in a constant race to the bottom of the barrel of right-wing tropes.
Working class, young, and oppressed people need our own party – one that organises in workplaces, communities and on campuses. Such a party could fight for a socialist programme on jobs, homes and services, against racism, sexism, LGBTQphobia and all oppression and to end the climate crisis. Socialist Alternative is actively fighting for such a party. Join us!