I’m sure I’m not the only one half expecting to wake from this nightmare and it all not be true. But, no, it is real, and we are stuck with Boris Johnson as prime minister, at least for the time being. It must be our aim to make Mr Johnson the shortest serving in British history. George Canning served as prime minister for just 119 days in 1827, so the countdown has begun.
But nothing really changes by sitting back and waiting for history to take its course. Meaningful change always comes from below. If we’re going to beat Boris Johnson, all of us are going to have to take an active role. It will be a community effort, involving MPs in Parliament, certainly, but most importantly, grassroots and trade union campaigners all over the country.
We’ve seen it all from Boris Johnson: racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, a disregard for the victims of historic sexual and physical abuse, and a nostalgia for the bad old days of the Empire. It’s like a parody, except it isn’t funny. What’s remarkable, though, is how his catalogue of poisonous views and attitudes hasn’t prevented him from becoming PM.
Of course, we can blame the tiny, unrepresentative minority who voted for him in the Tory leadership race — the 0.13 percent of the population who are true believers. But it’s more serious than that. We have to face up to the fact that, just like Trump in the United States, Boris Johnson will have a populist appeal among not just those who share his wealth and privilege but among working class voters.
His class privilege buffoonery should be a fatal weakness in a country scarred by poverty, homelessness, and precarious work, but — with the help of a compliant right-wing media — it has been turned into a strength. It is carefully crafted, designed to throw people off the scent of his real agenda with the image of a flawed, bumbling, but ultimately honest, straight-talking eccentric. Even the use of his name, “Boris” (his real name is Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson), is designed to warm the public to his charms.
The image is different from Margaret Thatcher’s — but there are similarities. Boris realizes that the Tory Party is a chaotic, crisis-ridden mess and that he needs to appeal beyond his own party. He will not be beyond taking populist measures to win over voters who are sick of establishment games and desperate for some hope of change. He will undoubtedly throw money at some problems, although it will always be tokenistic and for the cameras, rather than any thought-out investment plan for the country.
That populism is designed to throw us off course. Just like Thatcher’s “property-owning democracy,” it will mostly be flag waving. It will do nothing to solve the deeply embedded problems in our society, which need a root-and-branch reordering of our economy that only the Labour Party can deliver. But it will undoubtedly fool some into thinking that Prime Minister Johnson is different.
Those are some of the problems that face us. We should be honest and say that they are challenges to us, but they are not insurmountable. I’m absolutely confident that our movement — not only the 500,000 members of the Labour Party, but the millions of trade union members and anti-austerity activists — can beat Johnson. But how do we do it?
Firstly, we need to dig beneath the surface of his PR and reveal what his real interests are. Who does he really represent? Because he does not represent the majority of people in this country, those who have to work to live, those who struggle. Just like Nigel Farage, Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, he represents a small, privileged elite: a group that not only made a shedload of cash when times were good but continued to make vast profits when times were very, very bad for the vast majority. They have never had to tighten their belts because they were insulated from the shocks to the economic system.
We need to explain these connections in simple, accessible terms. When we talk about their adherence to free market fundamentalism, we need to break that down. Why is it that Boris Johnson and his allies seem relaxed about a no-deal Brexit that will undoubtedly harm business interests in the UK? Because they are wedded to a model of deregulation that will see a race to the bottom on workers’ rights, saving labor costs and cutting health and safety. After ten years of austerity, this will be a massive blow to workers in this country, but for Johnson and company, it is an opportunity.
Going deeper, we have to challenge their core values — especially the “common sense” that lingers in British society, left over from Thatcher, that which values competition over cooperation, individualism over collectivism, and privatization over public ownership. We will have to explain clearly how those values have led us to where we are and how this short-termism has damaged working-class communities all over the UK.
Take one practical example: social care. Boris Johnson claims he’ll fix the mess that has been created by the government he’s been part of, and that he will find millions of pounds to do so. For a nanosecond, people might be minded to believe him. But then we need to remember why there is such a mess in social care in the first place. The answer to that is deeply political, not just a matter of administrative incompetence.
For the social-care system to be fixed, two things need to happen: first, it needs to be a system free from private interests, and second, social care workers need to be bound by national collective agreements that have been negotiated by their respective trade unions and employers in the sector. Why? Because if private interests are involved in social care, the need to satisfy the shareholders rather than those receiving care will be written into the system. And how do you satisfy the shareholders? Ensure they make generous returns. How do you do that? You either cut the quality of care or you cut the terms, conditions, and pay of the workers.
A system of collective bargaining will ensure that within the social-care sector there no longer exists the race to pay the lowest rate for the job. The pay will be nationally determined and will apply to the whole sector. Will Prime Minister Johnson commit to end private interests from within the sector? No. Will he commit to a rollout of sectoral collective bargaining? Clearly not. So, the inadequacies and inequalities of the system will continue. Only a socialist set of principles can fix it, and we need to be very confident in explaining that on every policy issue.
Boris Johnson and his hard-right allies in government represent the ideology of quick profit and the values of individualism. That double team has not just damaged our communities economically, but created division, mental ill health, and physical harm all over the country. It has taken so many lives and ruined countless more.
We have to change the whole way that people view politics in this country. We have successfully mobilized a group of people around the Labour Party, but there are millions out there who have little or nothing in common with the privilege embodied by Boris Johnson, people who’ll benefit nothing from stripped-down free market capitalism. There is a polarization going on and people need to play a part in this movement, not be spectators. How we explain that beyond our core activist circles will be crucial.
But we have to start by looking outside Parliament. If we restrict ourselves to winning battles on the floor of the House of Commons, important thought that is, we will fail to deliver the shift needed to beat a resurgent right wing. The movement that brought Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party, and the party itself to within an inch of taking power in 2017, has been an insurgent one. It has been based on mobilizing the energy of people striving for a better world and translating that into a truly transformational Labour government. One without the other is lost.
When we are making those arguments and identifying the issues, we also must be clear that the twenty-first-century working class is diverse. Mobilizing the interests of that class, through direct defense of those varied communities, should have anti-racism at its core. A divided working class, or any response that privileges one group over another, is a gift to the hard right. That’s why anti-racist activism, in the street, in our workplaces, and in our communities is so important to defeating Boris Johnson and all that he stands for.
In the battle to beat Boris Johnson, the organized working class is crucial. Even after many years of attacks and restrictions on their activity, the trade union movement is still able to mobilize workers on a scale unmatched by the right. We need to reenergize that labor movement — with a focus on unity against the decimation of our communities. Labour, in or out of government, should be a partner alongside the unions in that struggle.
If we are able to draw these strands together, explaining the interests and ideology of Boris Johnson’s project in clear terms; mobilizing the interests of those to whom hard-right Thatcherites offer nothing; presenting a united front against attempts to divide us, and basing everything we do on a clear but inclusive class politics, we have every chance of defeating Boris Johnson sooner rather than later.
Offering the hope of a better society is our trump card: a society that is organized in the interests of people rather than money, where equality, redistribution, and social justice are seen as the norm, not an aberration. It’s a huge task, but one that this movement was designed to take on. The election of Prime Minister Johnson must focus minds, because suddenly, we don’t have the luxury of time.