If the cascading scandals of the last few weeks have taught us anything, it is this: the Conservatives look out for their own.
Now, by ‘their own’, I don’t mean the ‘hard-working families’ that politicians of all parties have pitched to for the past couple of decades. I don’t mean their voters — not most of them, anyway, and certainly not the much-vaunted ‘Red Wall’ ex-Labour voters who swung behind Boris Johnson and Brexit. Nor do I mean the working class,* which the Conservatives have, somewhat perplexingly, been able to win over in increasing numbers even as they slash social spending and hollow out public services.
When I say the Conservatives look after ‘their own’, I mean it in the most simple, literal sense: the Conservatives look after the super-wealthy. The Conservatives, in Karl Marx’s memorable phrase, are forever discovering that they care ‘only about ground rent’.
Rent-seeking may take more complex, more mystified forms than it did in Marx’s day, but it is rent-seeking nonetheless. Large private businesses, as the Conservatives’ donors and sometime employers, provide funds and jobs in exchange for favourable regulatory environments and, often, downright giveaways. They do so not to provide better goods or services, but so that they can continue to accumulate capital.
Of course, none of this is novel. Even the least politically engaged would likely nod their heads or roll their eyes at this assertion. Of course politicians are all on the take. Of course they are out for themselves. What else would you expect?
Still, it is worth highlighting the sheer brazenness of today’s Conservative Party. From awarding £13.8 million to a ferry company that had no ferries to spending £10 billion on a ‘world-beating’ COVID-19 Track and Trace system that turned out to be ill-equipped both to track and to trace, our governing party has pushed public funds directly into private hands at an increasing, alarming rate.
More and more, ministers do not even pretend to funnel this money through official channels. A text to the prime minister or a WhatsApp to the health secretary will suffice.
If the Conservatives look after their own, then, who does the Labour Party look after?
The answer, it seems, is no one.
Labour remains behind the Tories in most polls. Crucially, the party has haemmorhaged support among the young. To say nothing of the false distinctions by which pundits clump together and pull apart groups like ‘the young’, ‘students’, ‘activists’, and ‘the working class’, it is perhaps worth considering which voters, if any, will be swayed by a John Lewis photo-op and a focus on Downing Street’s interior design.
Labour’s strategic and tactical failure here is hard to overstate. The party has been offered an opportunity to pull together several major news stories into a clear, thorough indictment of a Conservative Party that puts the wealth of its class base above all other concerns, up to and including the lives of many of its voters.
It is difficult to give precise numbers, but well over 100,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the United Kingdom. How many of those deaths were due to late, uneven, and unfit for purpose policy? How many more will suffer long-term health consequences?
How many of those people died after the prime minister (reportedly) said, ‘let the bodies pile high in their thousands’?**
Starmer’s Labour has decided not to pursue these questions. It has made no effort to tie the callous disregard for human life expressed in the prime minister’s (alleged) comments to the clear prioritisation of profit in his party’s policies.***
In its unwillingness to link these issues into a thoroughgoing critique of the Conservative government, the Labour Party has not only failed to fulfil its role as an opposition party; it has abdicated its responsibility to stand for those victimised by Tory policy.
*The phrase ‘white working class’ is often used to describe lower-income Conservative supporters. Aside from the way that the qualifier ‘white’ seems to say the quiet part out loud — that is, to highlight race while pretending to highlight class — the phrase is of limited analytical use, obscuring the material realities of class and suggesting that white workers are somehow uniquely disadvantaged as workers.
**The initial reporting on this came from the Daily Mail, which I will not cite here.
***In many cases, the Conservatives managed to both disregard life and siphon public funds in the same policy. While analysing the human toll of austerity is even more difficult than counting the dead in the COVID-19 pandemic, this vicious policy programme undoubtedly spilt blood.