Labour Must Fight Boris Johnson’s Populism with a Socialist Alternative

In his speech today, Boris Johnson deployed phoney populism to crusade against a 'broken' economic system – Labour must seize the opportunity to provide a real alternative to neoliberalism.

Boris Johnson delivers his speech to today's Conservative Party conference. Credit: PA Media / Getty Images

Boris Johnson is now telling perhaps his biggest lie of all: that the economic pain that people are facing is part of a masterplan to boost wages and raise living standards. Energy hikes, food and fuel shortages, and benefit cuts are all just a bit of short-term pain for long-term gain.

It’s typical Johnson bluster, but in making his case he is deploying the same phoney populist message that he successfully used in the Brexit referendum and 2019 general election. Johnson is trying to position himself as an opponent of a broken neoliberal economic model that has driven down wages and living standards over the past 40 years.

The hypocrisy is glaring. One of Johnson’s heroes, Margaret Thatcher, oversaw the widespread deindustrialisation of regions like my own and the smashing of trade unions, resulting in a sharp drop in the economic share going to working people. Meanwhile, the most recent decade of Tory government has resulted in one of the biggest squeezes in living standards in 200 years and decimated our public services.

Of course, Johnson’s conference speech declaring his government is ‘levelling up’ and ‘building back better’ came on the very day that almost six million people were hit with a £1,000 cut to their already low incomes. That Universal Credit cut and the tax hikes on working people show that the Tories are seeking to make the working class pay for this crisis just as they did with austerity after the banking crisis.

But pointing out Johnson’s hypocrisy is not enough to win the argument. We need to take his dodgy claims head-on, and that means offering a proper alternative which acknowledges that people are completely sick of our broken economic model. Simply telling Boris Johnson to get a grip or come forward with a plan isn’t going to show people that we are on their side or change our position in the polls.

Our party must be the one that delivers, in Johnson’s own words, the ‘change of direction that has been long overdue’ with ‘no going back to the same old broken model.’ We simply cannot appear to be the party of the establishment while the Eton-educated, former Bullingdon Club member Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson poses as the outsider.

People do, in fact, want to see change to the broken model. The Covid crisis laid bare the deep failings not just of a decade of austerity but the 40-year domination of neoliberalism: weak public services, a failing social care system, woeful lack of workers’ rights and a hollowed-out social security system left us dangerously unprepared. As a result, tens of thousands of people unnecessarily paid with their lives.

The fallout from that crisis continues to highlight just how broken our economic model is, from the privatised energy system leading to yet more rip-off price hikes to the lack of HGV drivers stemming from years of low wages, terrible conditions and deregulation.

So Johnson’s rhetoric presents an open goal for Labour. Despite all his anti-system rhetoric, at the core of Johnson’s argument is the idea that the market will correct itself and in turn boost workers’ wages. His explanation for wages flatlining blames migrants while ignoring the deregulation that led to a ‘race to the bottom’ for workers. But the market won’t deliver for working people and nor will Johnson’s divide-and-rule scapegoating tactics.

Boosting wages and addressing the crisis in living standards requires an active state that is on the side of the people: one that tightly regulates the market, imposes world-leading workers’ rights and environmental standards, brings rip-off utilities into public ownership, and uses the state to deliver an active industrial strategy centred on huge public investment and a Green Industrial Revolution.

Only Labour can offer such a genuine alternative to today’s failed model. But that means Labour has to call Johnson out and provide its own bold vision.

When it comes to his phoney workerism, that means pointing out that if Johnson really wanted to increase wages then he would legislate to do so, not leave it to the market. He could, for example, massively hike the minimum wage so that the care workers, supermarket staff and delivery drivers hailed as heroes a year ago get the big pay boost they deserve.

It means fighting for a big boost in public sector salaries to address the decade of lost pay that nurses, teachers, and many others suffered. Standing side by side with NHS staff demanding a 15% pay increase would be a start.

And it means pointing out that if Johnson really wanted to increase pay then he would empower workers by repealing his own party’s backward trade union laws and by establishing full employment rights from day one for all workers, including sectoral collective bargaining as well as banning Fire and Rehire and zero-hour contracts.

Beyond the debate on wages, Johnson is positioning himself as the leader who will deal with ‘the problems that no government has had the guts to tackle before’ with action to ‘cut the cost of living for everyone,’ by ‘fixing our broken housing market’ and ‘sorting out our energy supply’ and ‘putting in those transport links’ lacking in many areas.

Again, Labour should seize on Johnson’s anti-neoliberal rhetoric to announce that we would bring rail, mail, water and energy into public ownership. The public already back these policies and we can win further support for public ownership by highlighting how it would not only deliver a better public service but lower costs. We should be relentless in exposing the scandal of how our key utilities are used as cash cows to hand billions in dividend payments to the wealthy.

We should be addressing people’s deep concerns about housing by pledging to build 100,000 council houses per year and announcing that we would impose rent controls and significantly strengthen tenants’ rights.

We should take advantage of Johnson’s claim to be addressing ‘one of the most imbalanced societies and lop-sided economies’ amongst the wealthiest countries by spelling out our vision for a socialist Green New Deal.

This could unite voters in small towns and big cities by tackling both the climate emergency and creating over a million green jobs, including the high-skilled employment especially needed in communities hit hard first by deindustrialisation and then by austerity. It could help give ‘left-behind’ areas a new purpose through the investment in renewables, public transport and the retrofitting of millions of homes needed to avert climate catastrophe.

Boris Johnson’s rhetoric and the reality couldn’t be more different. The Tories aren’t levelling up, they are punching down. But Johnson is seeking to take advantage of people’s genuine anger at a rigged system to cement another decade of Tory rule. Labour can use Johnson’s own rhetoric against him – but only if we ourselves are prepared to lead the charge against this broken system.