From blustering buffoon to Trumpish racist, Johnson’s recasting himself for a new wave of reactionary and anti-working class politics, writes Lindsey German
Anyone in doubt about the ruthless venality of Boris Johnson should think carefully about his latest attack on Theresa May. By saying that her Brexit strategy had strapped a ‘suicide vest’ around the British constitution, he managed to link the question of leaving the EU with the dog whistle politics about terrorism which fans the flames of the widespread Islamophobia that exists in Britain.
Johnson is on track for a leadership challenge to May - some say as early as this week. The Tories have had a fantastically easy ride over the summer because of Labour’s crisis over antisemitism. But the bitter divisions which were briefly papered over by the Chequers agreement on Europe only two months ago are now back in the open.
The calculation of Johnson and his supporters is that they have every interest in pressing for a hard Brexit - or even a no deal Brexit. Brutal Brexit might be a more appropriate term, but it is one which they see as central to free trade agreements, particularly with their friend Donald Trump, which are based on a low-wage, precarious, austerity-driven and regulation-free economy. They want to use racism against migrants and Muslims as a means of diverting attention from any fight against their anti-working class policies, and to give Johnson a leg up into Downing Street.
The divisions in the Tory party reflect the wider travails of British capitalism. The vast majority of the British ruling class is bitterly opposed to Brexit and is doing everything that it can to remain in the single market, and even in the EU itself through the second referendum campaign. Yet within the Tory membership, there is a clear majority for Brexit and if Johnson is able to launch a leadership challenge (getting on the ballot paper requires support from MPs, where is he is much less popular than in the party as a whole), then he is likely to win.
All this underlines the extent to which post-referendum Britain is seeing its politics changing quite dramatically. It’s something of a contradiction that we have witnessed a partial return to two-party politics since 2015, with both main parties around 40% in the polls, but at the same time the divisions within those parties have become more apparent and raw. The Tories have an ageing and declining membership which is actually lower than that of the SNP, and that membership is increasingly nostalgic and backward-looking. This leads to increasing strains on the party, as its leadership continues to try to represent ruling class interests. Johnson sees that the growth of the far right internationally can also help his cause. He can channel racist and Islamophobic ideas inside the Tory party and can also flirt with forces further to the right - and possibly join with them in the future.
The stakes are very high in the Brexit argument. If the Labour right and the centre get their way, there could be a second referendum or an aborting of the referendum vote. That would immediately fuel the rise of the far right, with Tommy Robinson, Gerald Batten and Nigel Farage being some of the unpleasant political figures who would benefit from such a move. That might lead to fissures within the Tories, and with a further recomposition of the political centre pulling in remain Tories, Lib Dems and social democrats, and the right flank of Labour, into a new party.
These are exactly the mirror of pressures on Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, where there is growing clamour among large sections of the party for a second referendum. This is now being taken up by trade unions, including the GMB and the TUC itself. This week’s TUC congress will see further moves in that direction, motivated largely by people who are hostile to Corbyn.
The pressure is therefore increasing on Corbyn to abandon his people’s Brexit campaign. Far from helping him win the next election, this would be a suicidal move which would lose votes for Labour, most obviously to right wing formations. It would also strengthen his enemies in the party who have been on a relentless attack against him throughout his three years of leadership.
Who let the dogs out?
What a sorry week this has been for Labour. The retreat at the NEC last Tuesday, when the IHRA definition of antisemitism was adopted, was both a personal defeat for Jeremy Corbyn and a setback for Palestine solidarity. It has also opened up a witch-hunt of left activists inside Labour. And John McDonnell then followed this up when he attacked posters in London put up by a Palestine group with no connection to Labour. The IHRA definition is therefore being used to discipline people outside the party, and will also lead to self-censorship.
Some of those who accepted this retreat did so because they believed it would succeed in drawing a line under the whole antisemitism argument and would allow the left to get on the front foot.
It is obvious that the line has not been drawn. Even straight after the retreat, Corbyn was under attack. The very welcome no confidence votes in MPs Joan Ryan and Gavin Shuker last week were greeted with outrage from the right, and from its echo chamber in the press.
Chuka Umunna demanded that Corbyn ‘call the dogs off’ - a remark which has caused outrage across Labour’s left. It is quite an incredible statement given that the attacks within Labour in recent months have come overwhelmingly from the right on the left. Not satisfied with calling his fellow party members dogs, Umunna returned to the attack by claiming that Labour was institutionally racist because of the antisemitism argument. Trevor Phillips claimed that Labour had a racist and antisemitic leadership.
What a looking glass world this is, when Jeremy Corbyn can be accused of racism in the most offensive terms, while there is no comparable opprobrium towards Boris Johnson, and where there is no mention of the major institutional racism in British politics - and across all main parties - which is Islamophobia.
It's hard to escape the conclusion that racism and antisemitism are being weaponised by Labour’s right in order to attack the left. This is not only despicable, it is also dangerous. Racism and antisemitism are a real and growing phenomena and should not be used as political weapons.
There is only one answer to this and that is to resist this whole political onslaught. Labour has to reject these scandalous accusations of racism and it has to get on the front foot on this and other questions. Jeremy Corbyn should make clear his full opposition to antisemitism and racism, to reject those who promote fears about these issues in order to gain political advantage, and to underline that he is not going to stop supporting the Palestinian cause.
Apologies and compromise aren’t working. We now have the ludicrous situation where it is an offence within the Labour Party to criticise Israel as a racist endeavour, but not an offence for prominent members, including MPs, to denounce their party and leader as racist. Seriously?
The right don’t like us being right
On Saturday the Stop the War Coalition had its annual conference, where delegates and members met to discuss and debate resolutions. It was a very good turnout and atmosphere, with a strong undercurrent of support for the Palestinians, given recent events. Andrew Murray pointed out that we had been right for 17 years, since we predicted that the War on Terror - first launched against Afghanistan - would not prevent terrorism, and would be a war which dragged on as it has for nearly two decades.
It’s astonishing how right we were but how little this has been acknowledged. One reason I think why the pro-bombing brigade are so keen to attack us is that they cannot face admitting this fact. Yet we have helped to change opinion in this country and have mobilised repeatedly. We can see the terrible consequences of bombing in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen today. Just another reason why we need an anti-war government - which is why the attacks on Corbyn were widely condemned at our meeting. People left the meeting determined to keep mobilising - not bad after 17 years.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
More articles from this author
- October Song - book review
- Learnt nothing and forgotten everything: the next crash is coming - weekly briefing
- Racism, war and Trump: the Stop the War Coalition AGM
- The Palestinians deserve better than this – weekly briefing
- When the lying has to stop – weekly briefing
- Don’t look here, look there: the one percent, inequality and Jeremy Corbyn - weekly briefing
- Boris Robinson and Tommy Johnson: two sides of the same racist coin – weekly briefing