Only a general election can break the impasse, and to make it happen we need to get out on the streets and pile the pressure on, argues Martin Hall
We now have a situation where the government cannot command a majority on the one issue that it stood on in June 2017. Theresa May has no majority in parliament, nor in the country. She leads a government that has been found to be in contempt of parliament, a situation unprecedented in the institution’s history. Her own backbenchers are saying that she has lost the trust of parliament and the country. A leadership challenge may come in the next week or two. She heads up a party that has been funding a company that has been using social media to spread negative views regarding its opposition. Her own cabinet has revolted over the Brexit deal. Uncertainty abounds in Westminster. As Jeremy Corbyn stated in response to the announcement from Downing St, ‘we don’t have a functioning government’. By any standards, Theresa May has failed.
Strong and stable has become frightened and incapable. Over 100 of her MPs were set to join opposition parties in voting down a deal that has created a unity of opposition of sorts from Leavers and Remainers, neither of which it satisfies. May is attempting to amend the backstop deal regarding the border in Ireland, and in so doing will be caving in to the demands of the most reactionary force in the UK parliament: the DUP. They are the only political party to be predicated upon a contradiction at their very heart: we are a special and unique people but don’t you dare treat us any different from the rest of the UK. They do not in any sense represent majority opinion in the UK, and certainly not on the island of Ireland.
Yet in this context, we have the abject failure of the vast majority of Labour backbenchers to press their advantage in yesterday’s debate. MP after MP stood up and called for a People’s Vote, aided and abetted by opposition MPs from other parties. This let Theresa May off the hook, as all she had to do was reiterate the same point: we are going to see through Brexit. Just what that Brexit will be or how this will be achieved was effectively taken off the table every time this intervention was made.
Allied to this, we have the sight of the usual suspects on the right of the Labour party, as well as the SNP, Lib Dems and more, insisting that Jeremy Corbyn calls for an immediate vote of no confidence in the government, in the sure knowledge that this would at the present time not get through parliament, leading to the second phase of Labour’s agreed position at Conference, which is to go for a second referendum of some description if a general election cannot be achieved. Some of them, including Chuka Umunna, were honest enough to admit that they simply want to get phase one out of the way so phase two can begin. What they are not admitting in public is that the aim of this is to push Corbyn into a defeat. Criticism of Corbyn’s decision not to shoot himself and the labour movement in the foot was up and running in the corporate media by yesterday afternoon. But Corbyn and the leadership are right to resist this pressure. It’s important, however, that the left pushes the advantage and make a winnable vote possible soon.
Furthermore, knowledge of how the EU operates based on previous negotiations after lost referenda gives us an insight into what is likely to happen next regarding the deal. Theresa May is in the Hague, Berlin and Brussels today to meet, among others, Angela Merkel, Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk, with the latter tweeting yesterday that he is ‘ready to discuss how to facilitate UK ratification’, with some sort of declaration on the backstop likely to be on the table. While the deal will not change substantively, the EU will do whatever is necessary to help the Tories. What is behind this is twofold: a desire to get a deal that maintains frictionless trade, ties the UK into EU rules regarding state aid and the absolute priority of avoiding a Corbyn government and the negotiations that would follow.
With this in mind, the key task of all the left in the UK is to force a general election, wherever people stand on Brexit. All else must come second to that. To those who say that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act makes that impossible, we should respond like this: crises expand and can very easily exceed the supposed limits of whatever parliamentary measures are there to contain them. The act serves a function and was instituted for that purpose, but it doesn't guarantee that a situation can't arise that effectively makes it redundant. All the left must strive to bring that situation closer.
The principal way to achieve an environment where a general election will be called is via agitation on the streets and in the workplace, in order to create a groundswell of opinion against the government that it cannot ignore and which takes on its own momentum. Look to France and the gilets jaunes. The EU is in crisis, with its self-appointed saviour Emmanuel Macron releasing armoured cars against his own citizens, who are showing no sign of backing down after he pulled back on his proposed fuel tax rise. European working class solidarity with Brexit during the referendum campaign did exist, but was absent from the predominant narrative in the UK in 2016, as the campaign became a debate between two different visions of capitalism. What is happening in France, and indeed Holland and Belgium, where yellow vest protests have occurred, is bringing working class struggle into the spotlight. Indeed, it is key that the militant anger of what we are seeing in France is brought to the fore in the UK in the coming weeks: the government must be under no illusions regarding the need for an end to eight years of austerity.
A general election won’t be achieved on the benches of the House of Commons. For anyone living under that illusion, yesterday’s debate should have disavowed them of it.
If Labour can win a general election, and to do so it must campaign to see through Brexit, then it can attempt to negotiate a new deal with the EU, one in which the UK can use state aid to limit the freedom of establishment and movement of capital as enshrined in the Single Market. To do so successfully will require a strong hand, which a mandate for a Brexit in the interests of working people via a general election would provide. Labour must not make the mistakes that Syriza did, which was to adopt a position that suggested they weren’t prepared to be expelled (from the EMU, in that case) while prioritising staying.
What Labour must do is go in with a clear position: we want a deal that exempts us from restrictions on state aid and we will limit capital’s freedom of establishment. We will end austerity. We will ask for solidarity and support from all left parties in the EU when we take this position. The EU would then have to countenance its real fear: the threat of a good example from outside its borders.