Truss’s ideological government is in trouble, but does Labour have answers?
OPINION: Truss’s neoliberalism may be the Tories' downfall, but it's not clear if Starmer offers a real alternative
This week, just six days after the crisis broke over chancellor of the exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-budget, prime minister Liz Truss made it crystal clear that there would be no turning back – the transformation of the economy towards neoliberal market fundamentalism would not be halted, still less reversed.
The surprise is not that she took this view but that anyone expected otherwise. After all, throughout the Tory leadership election campaign she had focused on the kind of economy she believed the country needed, and when she won the election and formed the government, those chosen for the Cabinet shared that vision. In addition, her key advisors at No 10 were almost all drawn from the right-wing think tanks, especially the groups based in the Tufton Street premises owned by businessman Richard Smith.
An earlier column, just over a month ago, argued that this incoming Truss government was rigidly and determinedly going for the full neoliberal model – more than Thatcher, more than Reagan and in all probability more than that earliest manifestation of the new world economic order, Pinochet’s Chile.
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We sensed that Truss had a sense of urgency to act for the ideological neoliberals that she represents, many of whom believed that Boris Johnson had always been focused on his personal success at the expense of market fundamentalism.
The Truss group and its key supporters are far more intensely focused on the five basic elements of neoliberal policy-making:
- Restrict labour rights and union powers
- Minimise financial regulation while organising taxation to reward wealth
- Shrink the state while centralising its power, especially through control of the purse
- Devolve responsibilities while restricting public funding
- Further privatise public assets including energy, utilities, transport, health, social care, education and housing
In the UK, much of this policy-making was embraced during the 1980s and has been further developed in the years of Conservative government since 2015, with all going tolerably well until COVID-19 came along. The pandemic demonstrated painfully that a deregulated free-market economy is deeply flawed and cannot handle such a crisis. Johnson’s government had no option but to take charge and spend heavily.
True, Johnson denied that need for many weeks, his speech in Greenwich in February 2020 demonstrating the full extent of his resistance to such action. It is also true that his government’s later handling of the pandemic – cronyism, chumocracy, corruption and all – was not a bad time for some of the more shadowy elements of the British elite. Even so, it was not what market fundamentalism was meant to be about, leaving Truss and those around her to rescue the vision. That is the context for the Kwarteng budget.
What is interesting is the bitter public reaction to what the Truss group see as central to their outlook, the tax cuts for the wealthy. Away from government, though, that was bound to be controversial, especially in the context of the cost-of-living crisis. The best explanation for Truss’s behaviour is as a mixture of ideology, hubris and sheer arrogance, generated and strengthened within a coterie of adherents who are simply out of touch with the lives of most people.
It’s hardly surprising, given historical precedents such as the suddenness and intensity of the poll tax riots four decades ago that did much to end Margaret Thatcher’s time in Downing Street. We are not at the riot stage yet, but the Truss government is now in serious trouble, 20 or more points behind in the opinion polls, and with an election already starting to appear over the political horizon.
The best explanation for Truss’s behaviour is as a mixture of ideology, hubris and sheer arrogance
One intriguing question is where that leaves the Labour Party under Keir Starmer. He and his party have just had a good party conference, improved no end by coinciding with the government shooting itself in both feet. Labour may well now be heading for electoral victory whenever the election comes, but does Labour represent a genuine alternative to the current form of conservatism?
Look at its position in relation to the three major problems before us.
Global heating and consequent climate breakdown is arguably the most serious world-wide challenge. It’s followed by an economic model that has resulted in a widening economic divide and grotesque levels of wealth accumulation, and a security paradigm based on the ready use of military force.
On this last issue, Putin’s attempt to take over Ukraine as a client state has been a disastrous and costly failure but may drag on with the ever-present risk of sudden escalation. However, the war has given NATO a new lease of life after its multiple recent failures in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. It has also boosted military industries and forces across most of the Global North and enhanced the belief in greater military strength. Labour has little new to say on this and will simply embrace the need for a strong military, and spend accordingly.
As to economic policy, it will not make more than modest changes. These will certainly be aimed at the poorest and most vulnerable in society, and there will be some re-nationalisation. The recent tax cuts for the wealthy will be reversed, as will some elements of recent deregulation, but there will not be a core commitment to move beyond the neoliberal model. The current trend towards runaway wealth will scarcely be affected.
Where Labour can make a difference is with its progressive policy of decarbonisation, and that really is welcome. It is the one notable thing to come out of the conference, after being championed for years by Ed Miliband and aided no end by the intense and increasingly robust (if steadfastly non-violent) campaigning of Extinction Rebellion and many other groups.
Meanwhile, the world-wide trend towards runaway wealth gathers pace, scarcely reported in the mainstream media except, as usual, by Rupert Neate, The Guardian’s appropriately named ‘wealth correspondent’. Two days before Kwarteng’s mini-budget he wrote that, according to Credit Suisse: “The ranks of the global ‘ultra-high net worth’ (UHNW) individuals swelled by 46,000 last year to a record 218,200 as the world’s richest people benefited from ‘almost an explosion of wealth’ during the recovery from the pandemic.”
Such individuals have assets of more than $50 million and over the last two years their numbers have increased by more than 50%. More recently, and just after Kwarteng’s tax changes, Neate reported that: “Super-rich overseas people in the UK registered as having non-domicile status are being legally allowed to avoid paying more than £3.2bn of tax on at least £10.9bn of offshore income a year.”
If Labour does get into power, one sure indicator that it is serious about addressing marginalisation would be to address forcefully the problems of tax avoidance and tax evasion, collectively costing the country many billions of pounds a year. There is little sign of that yet, but there is still time, and it would certainly be a signal to the country and the wider world that Britain at last had a genuinely reforming government and that is wasn’t just a case, as Leona Helmsley famously put it: “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.”
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