The left cannot fight Boris Johnson’s power grab if it appeals only to Remainers, argues Vladimir Unkovski-Korica
Boris Johnson’s decision to prorogue the UK Parliament from 12 September until 14 October has caused outrage across the political spectrum.
Figures across the left were quick to voice their opposition. Jeremy Corbyn immediately denounced it as ‘recklessness’.
But the anger is not contained to the left. Even the favoured newspaper of the business class, The Financial Times, in an editorial, called for the overthrow of Johnson’s government. Another magazine favoured in establishment circles in Britain, The Economist, has done the same.
Opposition moved swiftly to the streets across Britain. It is as if Johnson’s move had galvanised mass direct action by ordinary people following months of ostensible silence as the country appeared to be a spectator to the deadlock in Parliament.
Politics moves to the streets
The dam broke in the last 24 hours, however, and politics has once again placed the citizen and the street at the centre of events.
As is usual in such circumstances, a wide array of forces has been unleashed. The left has taken a lead calling for protests against the Tory coup. The People’s Assembly protest calling for an immediate General Election is likely to be important and will take place at 6 pm on Tuesday 3rd September in Parliament Square.
But others have moved to demonstrate as well. The pro-European paper, The Guardian, was quick to report on calls for marches by groups like ‘Another Europe is Possible’, ‘Leeds for Europe’ and ‘The European Movement in Scotland’.
These protests bring together sections of the establishment which would prefer the end of the constitutional crisis to be the establishment of a government that would act to stop Brexit altogether. They also want to do anything to stop a Corbyn government.
Establishment fear of Corbyn
Indeed, much of the commentary stops short of calling for a democratic election to end the stalemate, preferring to contain the crisis in Parliament. The fear is clearly that Corbyn would be propelled to Number 10.
Thus, Polly Toynbee rails against the coup in The Guardian but implies an election is what Boris Johnson wants:
“Johnson was hoping for a vote of no confidence so he could call an instant election. He could present himself as the martyr, forced to go to the country by MPs hostile to the will of the people.”
The danger of conflating democracy with a Second Referendum
Johnson’s reasoning is quite simple: yes, he has shut down Parliament, but he is doing so to finally overhaul the undemocratic stitch-up in Parliament that has prevented the will of the people, expressed in the Brexit referendum, from being carried out.
It would be easy to underestimate the appeal of such a simple message. For it is not just over Brexit that MPs have appeared to be out of touch with the public. Parliament has passed a decade of austerity measures, while few were brought to justice over the 2009 expenses scandal, in which widespread misuse of allowances and expenses by MPs was exposed.
Before that, there were the Iraq War, the Tory sleaze scandals of the 1990s and the war on the miners in the 1980s to name just a few examples of when Parliament proved to be very distant from the lofty ideals to which a democratic system should aspire.
This is why it would be a basic mistake for the left, especially the Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party, to take up the cause of merely of defending Parliament or worse being seen to do so in order to overturn the 2016 referendum result.
There has already been far too much slippage in that direction lately. The recent attempts by Labour’s front bench to court the Liberal Democrats and rebel Tories have shown all the signs that such a strategy actually leads to the de-radicalisation of Labour’s message.
From calls for an immediate General Election, we then got calls for a General Election coupled with promises of a second referendum, and in the days prior to Boris Johnson’s coup we even had the General Election call slip to a last resort. Labour’s John McDonnell even took a selfie with other opposition parties to celebrate their deal to prioritise merely stopping a no-deal Brexit.
Break with the consensus
It is time to break from such a consensus, because otherwise the Labour Party risks losing its chance to present itself as anything else than continuity Remain against Johnson’s upstart message that he will deliver on the people’s vote of 2016. Continuity Remain may win votes in Remain areas, but it risks alienating vast tracts of the country, especially the north, that voted for Brexit in 2016.
Since most constituencies voted Leave in 2016, Labour would have little hope of outright winning an election if it chose to ignore many people’s anger at the establishment and their sense of disenfranchisement by a set of institutions that draw their origins in a pre-modern era.
Rather than trying to present itself primarily as the sensible, slightly anti-austerity and massively anti-no deal Brexit party, Labour should be calling for mass demonstrations and placing a no confidence motion in Boris Johnson’s government in the days before Parliament is shut down, denouncing him as a demagogue and calling for system change and a revamping of all the country’s institutions.
Only in this way can Labour renew the hope that its radical programme kindled in 2017, and open the way for a genuine transformation of society. The next days will prove critical. The left inside and outside the Labour Party cannot afford to let the moment slip. The alternatives, whether a Boris Johnson victory or a de-radicalisation of the Labour Party in government, would risk a massive defeat for the labour movement as a whole.
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